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?

President Evil? Fictional US presidents on screen

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Frank Underwood  (Kevin Spacey) is back, this time as US president in the third season of hit US TV drama House Of Cards. Scheming and manipulative, Underwood is definitely a bad sort. But which other fictional presidents, candidates and politicians both good and evil have graced our screens in the last fifty years or so? Here are some of the most memorable ones…

Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

A buffoonish take on the malevolent Senator Joe McCarthy, Iselin is a drunken idiot leading an anti-communist witch hunt effectively inspired by his scheming wife (Angela Lansbury).

 William Russell (Henry Fonda) in The Best Man (1964)

Gore Vidal’s screenplay essentially replays the 1960 Kennedy vs.  Nixon contest. There are a few odd twists, however.  Unlike the Democrat JFK and the Republican Nixon, both candidates are competing within the same party for the nomination. And here it is Cliff Robertson’s Nixon type who has the glamorous wife not Henry Fonda’s JFK.

President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) in Seven Days In May (1964)

Lyman’s liberal president is ahead of his time by about a decade in seeking détente but unfortunately provokes an attempted right wing military coup by Burt Lancaster’s General Scott in the process. Can Kirk Douglas save the day?

President Merkin Muffley in Dr Strangelove (1964)

“You can’t fight in here: this is the War Room!” One of three characters played by Peter Sellers in the film, resembles twice defeated 1950s Democrat presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson.

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Unnamed President (Henry Fonda) in Fail Safe (1964)

Oops. After the US blows up a Soviet city by mistake, the US agrees to sacrifice New York to appease the Russians. Henry Fonda plays the president (Richard Dreyfuss reprised the role in the 2000 live TV version) and soon finds his decision will take on a tragic personal dimension.

Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate (1972)

Robert Redford’s candidate sacrifices so much in his campaign for the Senate that he doesn’t know what to do once he’s won.  Quite a tame film by modern standards.

Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) in Taxi Driver (1976)

Bland presidential candidate who narrowly escapes assassination by Travis Bickle. This unfortunately probably partly inspired the real life assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981.

President Richard Monckton (Jason Robards) in Washington: Behind Closed Doors (TV: 1977)

Basically it’s Richard Nixon, although Robards stops short of actually impersonating him.

President Barbara Adams (Loretta Swit) Whoops Apocalypse (1988)

The first woman president tries and fails to prevent Peter Cook’s mad British Prime Minister from starting World War III in this largely unfunny British satire.

Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins) (1992)

Director/star Tim Robbins plays the country western singer turned right wing 1990 Senate candidate in this winning mockumentary. His defeated liberal opponent is played by Gore Vidal.

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Dave Kovic/Bill Mitchell (Kevin Kline) in Dave (1995)

A professional presidential lookalike Dave stands in for the nasty US president temporarily. When the president has a stroke during a sex act, however, the job becomes more permanent.

President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) in The American President (1995)

One of many Nineties “like Clinton but a bit better” liberal dream presidents, Shepherd is a widower leaving him free to woo lobbyist (played by Annette Bening) much to nasty Republican opponent Richard Dreyfuss’s glee.

President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman in Independence Day (1996)

Hurrah! Bill Pullman’s heroic US president saves the world from alien invasion.

President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) in Mars Attacks! (1996)

Hurrah! Jack Nicholson’s over the top US president fails to save the world from alien invasion.

President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) Air Force One (1997)

There have been two presidents Harrison and one Ford, so why not President Harrison Ford? In a slightly bizarre premise, the president ends up machine gunning lots of terrorists who have invaded his plane while female Veep Glenn Close rules the roost on the ground. A spoof called Vatican One in which an ex-martial arts champion becomes Pope was sadly never made.

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President Beck (Morgan Freeman) in Deep Impact (1998)

It may be the end of the world as we know it but President Beck feels fine.

Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta) in Primary Colors (1998)

You remember Bill Clinton? Basically, it’s supposed to be him.

Senator Jay Billington Bulworth (Warren Beatty) in Bulworth (1998)

Beatty’s Senator basically has a crisis and arranges his own assassination. After snogging Halle Berry, however, he soon regrets this decision.

President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) in The West Wing (TV: 1999-2006)

Perhaps the most fully realised fictional US president, Bartlet is a hugely intellectual New England academic who serves two terms as president in the long running series, surviving MS, scandal, government shutdowns, assassination attempts, the kidnapping of his daughter and numerous political reversals along the way. Sheen had played JFK in a memorable mini -series nearly twenty years before and is no less brilliant in this.

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President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) in The Contender (2000)

Perhaps the most laidback president ever, there’s more than a hint of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski about Bridges’ Democratic incumbent in this West Wingy style drama. He even likes bowling.

President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) 24 (TV: 2001-2007)

Before there was “No Drama” Obama there was “Even Calmer” David Palmer. A black US president, Palmer’s presence on the series ended before Obama’s first presidential campaign got going.

President Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) in Commander In Chief (TV 2005)

Taller than Bartlet, Geena Davis is easily the best thing in this short lived drama about the first woman president. Like most fictional women presidents, Allen comes to power as a result of her predecessor’s death, rather than being elected herself.

Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) in The Ides of March (2011)

Anti-big business, anti-car, handsome and charismatic Morris seems to be the perfect presidential candidate for the Democrats in this drama. But lo and behold: campaign aide Ryan Gosling soon uncovers skeletons in his closet.

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