COURSEY: Halos and horns in the halls of political power

A funny thing happened to my television viewing habits this month.

I mentioned to a friend that I recently began watching re-runs of the political series "The West Wing," which ran from 1999-2006 on NBC. Oh, he said, then you might like "House of Cards," which became available a few weeks ago on the streaming video service Netflix.

Both shows are about politics at the highest level in Washington, D.C. Both have intelligent scripts and intriguing plot lines. Both have high-caliber acting and well-known stars.

And they couldn't be more different.

"The West Wing" offered an idealized view of politics at a time when many Americans were disillusioned by a presidential election that was decided by the Supreme Court, the attacks of September 11 and a trumped-up war that seemed to be going nowhere. President Josiah Bartlet, a former college professor and Nobel laureate played by Martin Sheen, was wise, articulate, just and kind. His staff was loyal, smart, passionate and concerned about the lives of everyday Americans.

"The West Wing" was politics as we'd like it to be. "House of Cards" is its evil twin.

The "house" in "House of Cards" is the labyrinthine scheming of Rep. Francis Underwood, D-South Carolina, the majority whip in the House of Representatives and a guy who makes Machiavelli look like a piker. Played with Southern charm and slithery smarm by Kevin Spacey, Underwood is everything that we suspect is wrong with politics.

And he makes it so much fun.

If "West Wing" was uplifting inspiration, "House" is guilty pleasure. It doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is: a story about greed and ambition and conniving and corruption played at the all-star level.

Underwood doesn't hide his ugly underbelly; in fact he revels in sharing it. Several times in each episode, Spacey turns toward the camera and arches an eyebrow at the audience, explaining in an aside his character's well-laid deceits. His wife Claire, played by Robin Wright, is the Capitol's Lady Macbeth, abetting her husband's misdeeds and ambitions unless, of course, they conflict with her own – in which case she doesn't hesitate to stab him in the back.

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