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 &#8211; in which case she doesn't hesitate to stab him in the back.
Meanwhile, the media &#8211; in this case fronted by a sexy young blogger willing to do anything for a story &#8211; is either a pack of lapdogs that the clever politicians lead around by the nose or a pack of jackals tearing up the best-laid plans of the characters who count. By the end of the 13-episode first installment of "House," the reporters have abandoned print media altogether but are seemingly poised to rally for a Woodward-and-Bernstein moment.
"House" includes some ridiculously implausible plot lines, including a gubernatorial candidate who morphs on a dime from an environmental champion to a lackey of the lobby promoting fracking for natural gas, and a president who doesn't want Underwood in his cabinet but trusts the conniving congressman with the White House's deepest secrets and most important decisions. Many of the characters are so broadly drawn as to be cartoonish &#8211; caricatures of our most cynical imaginings of how Washington works.
But "West Wing" had many of the same flaws, just with halos instead of horns. The Bartlet Administration was so fair and just that it nearly debated itself out of many political arguments. Who needed an opposition party when CJ and Josh and Toby and Sam could argue all sides of an issue right there in the Oval Office? The show was nearly unfailingly optimistic and sentimental, and never missed a chance to deliver a lesson or even a lecture about The Right Thing to Do.