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Why are you obsessed with 'House of Cards'?

Jessica Dunker • Jun 3, 2017 at 11:40 PM

Returning for its fifth season, Netflix original series “House of Cards” has caught the attention of critics and viewers alike with a politically tense plotline that uncannily correlates with current events.

Though politics can be a taboo subject, this portrayal of modern-day politics appears to be hitting home with viewers.

But why?

A look behind the photo ops, perhaps?

“I think people like it because it gives the allusion to what happens in the inside of the presidency,” East Tennessee State University Professor of Public Administration Lon Felker said. “We only see the president in photo ops and set-piece appearances. … What goes on behind the scenes is most often unknown to the average American.”

The theme of emotion and character hidden in the inner workings of politics has been a favorite public interest dating back to Shakespeare’s time, when the renowned playwright would write his own pieces on the hidden life of the royal household.

What intrigues viewers is this chance to catch a glimpse of real-life politics in Washington, D.C., though not without some artistic license.

Felker confirmed that while Washington is cut-throat and “soul-eroding” in some cases, it doesn’t go so far as murder in the White House.

“I think of some of it is realistic, and some of it is far-fetched,” he said.

But the series keeps drawing people back.

It’s trending right now on Netflix, and with the latest season kicking off last week — and a planned sixth season — the show is a big hit. It’s been nominated for numerous awards and won several, including two Global Globes for Best Performance in a Television Series for stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.

Cathy Whaley, an adjunct professor in ETSU Department of Literature and Language, loves the show. As someone who has worked on political campaigns in the past and teaches classes on media relations, she has professional experience in politics.

“Everyone always wants to see the down-and-dirty,” she said of the show’s success.

“House of Cards” depicts political campaigns, debates, in-house reform attempts, the legislative process and the roles of the people, institutions and processes the White House deals with: Congressional leaders, bureaucrats, public relations, the media, constituents, international diplomats and a long list of others.

And as far as realism?

“Some of the campaigning stuff is fairly realistic, the ins and out of campaigning, how one tries to discredit the opponent,” Felker said. “That’s been fairly well documented. … I imagine a lot of the international stuff is fairly realistic in the sense that these things could happen, and presidents could respond in the manner Frank Underwood does,” which is polite, tense and sometimes aggressive.

Especially now with current events, viewers are interested to see how the plot will play out for Frank Underwood. The media has always been an issue for Underwood in the show, similar to our current president’s tension with the media.

“If you don’t have media, you don’t have politics,” Whaley said. “You look at the core at how media drives politics.” She said there always has been and will be controversy between the media and politics, but you can’t have one without the other.

She described the point of the show to idealize the “sense of other” between who politicians are and who they show to the camera.

Whaley said the directors use the technique of breaking down the fourth wall to truly reveal what viewers want to see. Underwood’s snarky asides to the audience are what makes the show self-actualizing.

So, what effect does the drama’s negative portrayal of the politician in the White House have on its viewers?

“That largely depends on the psychology of the viewer,” Felker said. “Some people may decide the whole spectacle is disgusting and sort of tune out. People are just encouraged basically to drop out of politics and not vote. … Other people are maybe deciding, this might be a minority, to get more involved, to study issues and the character of various candidates and take politicians more seriously.”

Felker said the show is particularly on-target when it comes to the city itself.

“I think there are people in politics with very noble intentions and with a sincere desire. … Washington changes them. It’s a very dangerous town,” Felker said. “That is very accurately depicted in the show. It can be a very soul-eroding experience as a politician in Washington, D.C.”

With the current turmoil surrounding the White House, expanding investigations and the controversial changes taking place, Felker said it’s difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction concerning “House of Cards.”

Felker said it’s the most incredible sight he’s seen in the presidency. 

“I think television and fiction, and shows that depict Washington in the light that the show does, are really being challenged as the reality of the media that is covering Washington, D.C.,” Felker said. “Reality is competing with fiction for people’s attention.”

“You can’t help but watch,” Whaley said. “Who’s imitating whom now? We’re trying to portray a fictional story, and you’ve got real-life politics intruding.”

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