In its purest form, like the vapid, 1939 classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, this kind of story is not even about politics at all.
It requires the rejection of politics, in pursuit of some magical public interest that, conveniently, requires no actual reconciling of competing values. With no debatable controversies, the audience can mindlessly savor the triumph of something unquestionably good (say, Sen. Smith's youth camp) over something bad (corrupt party bosses).
This anti-politics matches a delusion that many political novices share with entitled elites—the indulgent notion that one's personal values transcend "ideology," and instead, reflect a universal "common sense."
Most of Hollywood's political projects fit into those two boxes. That is one reason why House of Cards distinguished itself immediately.
David Fincher's new political thriller, released in 13 episodes on Netflix, takes a different and much darker path. His tale begins with a clear take on Washington: It is the source of evil. Not a place reduced to evil, because of political infighting or external financial pressure.
No, this is a story about the Beltway as a magnet for bad actors.
The players and wannabes hustle through town, constantly measuring and modulating their proximity to the power centers of the White House and the Capitol. The show's opening sequences feature Washington in time-lapse photography, emphasizing the rush of the town—a blur of replaceable people against a backdrop of immovable buildings, temporary cogs working in the permanent power structure.
One critic dubbed Fincher "the king of glossy decay," a mood that is evident here. Washington is presented as a hypocritical sanctuary for high-functioning power-addicts, a place where people who don't like to be controlled can gather and try to control others.
Frank Underwood, played with an almost ridiculous intensity by Kevin Spacey, is the leader and narrator of this gathering. The South Carolina congressman is a close adviser to the president, a hidden hand in the media, and the majority whip in the House of Representatives. The whip, which ranks third in party leadership, does not typically drive politics. In the spirit of legalistically daft fact-checking, you could contrast Underwood's notoriety to the real, obscure majority whip (it's Kevin McCarthy); or shake your head at the shots of Underwood constantly huddling at the White House, when the real president's whip, Steny Hoyer, only made the trip five times during Barack Obama's first year in office (according to public visitor logs).
But that would miss the point. House of Cards is aiming for truth, not accuracy.
Underwood may be a dramatization, but his ticks are familiar. He is a hopped-up version of a dominant archetype in national politics: People who enter the arena for the same reasons a big audience still watches it—the thrill, glory, and ambition. Policy and morality run a distant second and, even then, often serve as props to underscore "the stakes" of the maneuvers involved, not as dimensions of independent substance.