Head to Head: House of Cards Vs The West Wing

Gratefully reproduced from Bingebox magazine (2016):

THE WEST WING

Welcome to the presidency of Josiah Bartlet. During the seven season run of Aaron Sorkin’s award-winning series, we see the fictional two- term administration take a rollercoaster ride through crises (a major assassination attempt and an attempt to kidnap the president’s daughter), scandal (is the president concealing something important from everyone?), disaster (a major nuclear accident in California), numerous triumphs and many other matters, some of global import, some, such as the president falling off a bike in public, more trivial.

In truth though, this is not just the story of a president but of the talented team behind him. In what may prove to be career-best role, onetime Brat Packer Rob Lowe excels in the first four seasons as razor-sharp speechwriter Sam Seaborn with Bradley Whitford, Alison Janney, Richard Schiff, John Spencer (the last of whom sadly died just as the final season was coming to an end) leading a stellar cast who make up the president’s White House west wing team.

Occasionally, things may get a little too bit earnest. Is everyone in US politics really so well-intentioned and decent as they are here? It’s actually something of a relief when Bartlet’s vice president John Hoynes (Tim Matheson) turns out to a scheming, malevolent toad.

Ultimately, however, for all of its high powered “walk and talk” conversations and highly-charged content, The West Wing was just as popular amongst those with little or no interest in current affairs at all as it was amongst battle-hardened political junkies.

Ten years after it finished, The West Wing, often funny, sometimes moving, has scarcely dated at all. If you’ve never seen it before, now is the perfect time to catch up with an all-time classic.

Box out: All The President’s Men (and Women)…

Three of Bartlet’s best and brightest…

Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford)

Idealistic, witty and argumentative, communications deputy Josh is devoted to Bartlet, having previously backed his opponent John Hoynes who is now the Veep.  Badly wounded in the attempt on the President’s life.

CJ Cregg (Alison Janney)

In a career-defining role, Janney is perfect as the sharp, sassy and on the ball press secretary CJ. And just as Josh secretly yearns for his assistant Donna, CJ loves beardy journo, Danny.

Josiah “Jed” Bartlett (Martin Sheen)

POTUS himself, the president is sort of an older wiser less promiscuous version of JFK (a role Sheen once played memorably on TV). Jed is ably supported by his First Lady Abby (Stockard Channing).

HOUSE OF CARDS

If The West Wing offers an optimistic view of the American political scene, House Of Cards represents its dark underbelly. In that respect, perhaps it is ideal viewing for the era of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?

For make no mistake, from a fairly early stage, it is clear that the main character Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is a very bad man indeed. We know this because of the way he speaks. We know this because of the things he does. And finally, we know this because he tells us so himself, confiding in us his every passing evil thought and deed.

It is this Shakespearian device which sees Underwood sharing his thoughts with the audience – sometimes just in the form of a wry smile to the audience (of course, always unseen by whoever Frank is talking to and presumably screwing over at the time) – which makes us feel complicit in his crimes. It was an appealing device when Ian Richardson (like Spacey, a Shakespearian actor) played the equivalent role of an upper class English Tory politician in the original version of House of Cards, 26 years ago. It works just as well now.

We watch Underwood climbing the greasy pole rising from party whip (being snubbed by being passed over for his promised position of Secretary of State) rising to Vice President and beyond. We watch him lie, cheat, have affairs and commit murder but we’re basically rooting for him. We want him to win.

For yes, Frank Underwood is a very bad man. But some of us do like bad guys. The problems begin when too many of us start electing them into positions of power.

Box out: Axis of Evil?

Three of the main players in this game of thrones…

Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey)

US Democratic Party politician. Likes include: cooked breakfasts, the South, exercise, sex with young female reporters, murder, blackmail, gradually accumulating political power over a period of time, breaking the Fourth Wall.

Claire Underwood (Robin Wright)

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A million miles away from her breakthrough role as the Princess Bride, Wright is brilliant as Frank’s wife and partner in crime, a character every bit as ruthlessly ambitious as her husband.

Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly)

Not to be confused with Thumper (the rabbit in Bambi), as the Underwoods’ chief accomplice, Stamper’s sense of loyalty is the one thing that never seems in doubt. Or is it?