Americans hate Washington politics. But Americans apparently can't get enough of television shows about Washington and its politics. From Scandal to House of Cards to Veep to Madam Secretary to the new State of Affairs, such programs have popped up on networks, cable, and the Web, to critical acclaim and buzz. Washington is especially captivated by House of Cards; President Obama has said he is a fan, and when the cast members descended on the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, they were treated by official Washington as near-royalty, with the show considered a must-see.
Not for me. Of course, I think the cast is full of amazing actors, starting with Kevin Spacey (who had an earlier, terrific Washington turn as Jack Abramoff in the movie Casino Jack) and Robin Wright. But I stopped watching House of Cards, in part because I can get picky about verisimilitude. But the larger reason is the deep cynicism that permeates the show. It is about pure evil—characters with no moral center who will do anything, up to and including murder, to achieve their ambitions. And the most evil and amoral rises to be president. It is great drama, but the series plays to Americans' worst instincts and beliefs about politicians and politics.
As my screeds about the corruption in the post-Citizens United world and my focus on the congressional ethics process make clear, I am not exactly naive about politics and corruption. And I won't shrink from railing against cynical political maneuvering or ideological extremism. But the fact remains that the vast majority of people in government are there because they want to make a difference—and are not corrupt or amoral. They can and should be lampooned, skewered, even twisted around to make for juicy drama and suspense. But only if there is some humanity, along with perspective, mixed in. Watch House of Cards without knowing real people in politics, and you will come away thinking that everyone is Caligula on crystal meth.
My post-election therapy was binge-watching the second season of Alpha House, the terrific Amazon Prime series built around four Republican senators sharing a house on Capitol Hill. In the interest of full disclosure, I had a special interest: I had a cameo, with a line, in the final episode, along with MSNBC's Alex Witt. But I had become a big fan of the show long before that. Of course, it was in part because of its heritage. I would watch or read anything created and written by Garry Trudeau, the master satirist of the past four decades, and Jonathan Alter, a great journalist of the old school. Add John Goodman, and you had me at Alpha.
Alpha House is broad satire—sometimes very broad. The premise of the show, of course, comes from the real-life Capitol Hill house owned by Representative George Miller and long shared with the likes of former Representative Leon Panetta, Senator Chuck Schumer, Senator Dick Durbin, and former Representative Bill Delahunt, all Democrats. Trudeau and Alter gave it the twist of using four Republican senators who themselves are broad composite caricatures of lawmakers we know. The senators can be venal and opportunistic, and each has deep flaws, as do the sometimes even-broader caricatures of their colleagues, not to mention their staffers, who have near-equal billing.
But besides the fact that the episodes are laugh-out-loud funny, the show has another great virtue. Alpha House is written with genuine affection for the real human beings, warts and all, who occupy elected office. That is especially true of John Goodman, who plays Gil John Biggs of North Carolina, and Clark Johnson, who plays Robert Bettencourt, a black Republican from Pennsylvania. The senators and the staffers live in the real world of politics—perhaps the signature line came in the second season's fifth episode, when Gil John Biggs says to his colleagues, "You know what the sad thing is? We spend 90 percent of our lives ducking shitstorms, begging for money, and whoring for votes. And why do we put ourselves through all of that? In order to hold onto jobs that are 90 percent ducking shitstorms, begging for money, and whoring for votes. What's wrong with this picture?"
Of course, he is right. But watching Alpha House, I don't come away feeling naked contempt for the pols and hangers-on in it, but sympathy for the pushes, pulls, and pressures that come with their jobs.
Alpha House is not the only Washington show I watch avidly. I love Veep, which does not treat its characters with the same sympathy as Alpha House but has a sharp cast—how can you not love Julia Louis-Dreyfus?—and so many characters, such as Timothy Simon's Jonah Ryan and Reid Scott's Dan Egan, who are spot-on treatments of Washington aides whom all old hands recognize. And the show is also laugh-out-loud funny.
I have also become semi-hooked on Madame Secretary, which has its own problems with verisimilitude—like the almost complete absence of a national security adviser—and some hokey dialogue and interpersonal psychodrama. But it scores points because it lays out quite vividly, and often with nuance, the difficult choices and tensions between realism and morality, and the consequences of a choice to tilt to one ally while enraging other nations, that are in fact part of the life of those who make foreign policy—but are rarely considered in the stick-figure analysis we see on cable news.
Other shows, such as Homeland and The Americans, are worth watching for the suspense, drama, and character development, but they treat Washington as more of a backdrop than a central player.
I applaud Netflix and Amazon Prime for investing so heavily in House of Cards and Alpha House, respectively. My money, my viewing time, and my four stars, go to Alpha House. Watch it. Believe me, now more than ever, you will appreciate the laughs.
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