Comparing the NBC show The West Wing to Netflix's House of Cards helps us to understand how much our culture has changed in the last ten years. Not only does House of Cards reveal a new way of circulating television content, but the form and content of the series presents a social shift from political idealism to social cynicism. In The West Wing, it is still possible for the audience to be entertained by a group of political idealists dedicated to the discussion of public policy, while in House of Cards, policy and the inner workings of the group are replaced by the cynical manipulations of isolated careerists. In this post-idealist period of political social Darwinism, everyone lies to everyone else and all enthusiasm and public purpose is mocked or manipulated.
The cynicism of the content of the Netflix series is matched by the form of the show. For example, when the main character breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the audience, a strange thing happens. On one level, following the recent trend of Reality TV, the temporary suspension of the fictional suspension of disbelief, makes the show seem more real and authentic: after all, he is talking directly to us and not to a group of actors. However, the ironic asides put the entire show between air quotes: when Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) winks at us, we are now in on the joke, and yet this conspiracy between the audience and the character does not lead to a closer connection; rather, the cynical wink places us in the position of the cynic watching another cynic perform cynical actions.
It should be stressed here that cynicism is defined by the desire to succeed in a system in which one does not believe. In this structure, the cynical wink or use of air quotes allows one to both conform to a social norm and take a distance to that social form at the same time. Cynicism then is a mode of ironic distance where the self remains pure as it critiques a distant external world. This subjective mode allows one to treat others as mere objects for manipulation in a culture of mass alienation coupled with immersive media. While in The West Wing the central focus is on policies and communication, House of Cards' only concern is pure power without belief or ideology. As Underwood tells the audience, "Democracy is so over-rated."
While the original The West Wing's audience had their viewing interrupted by commercials and weekly breaks, Netflix's strategy with House of Cards is to allow viewers to watch the entire series at once without interruption. This addictive and immersive model of media consumption once again has a strange reality effect. On the one hand, the lack of commercials and episode breaks allows one to fully lose oneself in the story for hours at a time, and yet, this immersion in the reality of the show separates one from the reality of one's life. In other words, one is fully immersed in a reality that is not real.
The philosopher Jen Baudrillard once wrote that Disneyland is in Los Angeles so that the fake people in L.A. can feel more real. In a similar way House of Cards uses real news broadcasters to appear more realistic, but the end result is that the real news personalities end up being fictionalized. From this perspective, irony and reality TV hold up a mirror to our everyday lives in such a way that art both reflects and mystifies our daily experience and self-representations.
Ultimately what is being fictionalized is our own cynical conformity and social structure. For instance, both shows deal with the same neoliberal situation of Democrats pushing through welfare reform; however, in The West Wing, this sacrifice of core liberal values is shown as a painful process of necessary political compromise, while in House of Cards, austerity politics is tied to purely political careerism. In fact, the entire show can be reads as a depiction of how careerism destroys every public institution. In this new model of social Darwinism, everyone only cares about his or her own individual advancement, and there is no possibility for a shared effort or a truly public institution. This Austerity of Hope is perhaps the true message of the show; we now live in a post-public culture, where the very idea of public service has to be mocked and ridiculed. Like so many other cable shows, the viewer is confronted with a system where everyone is lying to everyone else. The House of Cards then is a house of cards where each lie is supported by another lie.
Maybe the show is so popular because it reflects back to us our own cynical world of neoliberal careerism, yet this social reality is mirrored in a form that fictionalizes our own reality.