During my initial posting on this site, I had mentioned how I wanted to take a look at one of my all time favourite television shows The West Wing. Of course I then immediately, second guessed that decision. Without having a clear direction of exactly how I wanted to do it, I decided it was best left until I could give it the time and attention it deserves.
Then the suggestion was made (thanks for reading Rudi!). West Wing vs House of Cards. Now that's something I can sink my teeth into.
After all it makes sense that the two would draw comparisons. Both series are set in Washington DC and heavily involve the inner workings of U.S. Government. Both feature lead actors primarily known previously for film work. Both are products of creators known for distinctive styles (Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher specifically).
So, you may be asking yourself, how do they stack up against each other? Well, that's where the first problem comes in.
See, despite their location similarities, these are two very different stories being told in two very different ways. Indeed, it is in the contrasts in philosophy that the two series really carve out their own identities. Beyond the superficial similarities, how does one compare two completely different stories? It's not even a case of comparing apples and oranges, we're comparing apples and Volkwagons here.
I suppose, if I had to describe in a single sentence the major difference between the two, it would be: The West Wing depicts our greatest hopes and wishes for the world of government, House of Cards depicts our worst fears of the same.
So, let's get to it. I'll take these two apart piece by piece and see how they work. And of course, I can't start a discussion of shows about American politics without talking about the person at the top.
The West Wing depicts a President as we would hope a leader would be. Josiah "Jed" Bartlett is charismatic, educated, courageous, thoughtful, forceful when he needs to be, and has conviction. He's not just a President, he's a force of nature. House of Cards Garrett Walker is basically a stuffed shirt. An ineffective figurehead for Kevin Spacey's devious Frank Underwood to manipulate and undermine.
At first I had chalked up the depiction of President Walker as a poor casting decision. Now, this will be a recurring theme throughout this piece, but I recall bemoaning how limp and ineffective the character of the President was in House of Cards. I yearned for a Jed Bartlett to be in that Oval Office. With all due respect to Michael Gill (who did the best with what he was given to work with) Garrett Walker was basically the House of Cards equivalent of a Star Trek "red shirt". Somebody given just enough time and character development to be bumped off (oops...spoilers) without putting up much of a challenge. Now that I think of it, the symbolism of the most powerful man in the world being so easily toppled might have been a part of the game plan.
Interestingly, this was a mistake The West Wing made during it's run too. Season 3 marked Jed Bartlett's running for a second term and the writers of the show fell into the same trap by providing him with an ineffective opponent (James Brolin's Governor Bob Ritchie...a man who was defined by his blandness) nobody believed he could be beaten by. The West Wing would rectify this mistake during the following election cycle (Seasons 6 and 7) by providing two great candidates (and characters) in Jimmy Smits' Matt Santos (Dem) and Alan Alda's Arnold Vinnick (Rep).
All that being said, when it comes down to it, I'm optimistic when it comes to which depiction I prefer. I want to believe that there are people like Jed Bartlett, Matt Santos and Arnold Vinnick out there. People who legitimately want to do good in the public service. So often every day we're shown that there are plenty of Garrett Walkers and more than a few Frank Underwood's in politics.
Now that we've covered Presidents and wannabes, how about the supporting casts? This is where it gets tricky, as the casts serve two different purposes. The West Wing is an ensemble show where the characters are always center stage. House of Cards serves plot first and foremost, with characterization being a little more hit and miss.
Not to say that Cards doesn't have some standout performances. Robin Wright provides an engrossing performance of Claire Underwood. There are certainly many "Lady Macbeth" comparisons to be drawn, but Wright brings a depth of humanity to what could have been a nasty caricature. Michael Kelley plays Doug Stamper, Frank Underwood's go-to "fixer" who can be counted on to get rid of problems (most of the time successfully). He is another character who could have been a one dimensional henchman, but gets some nice character moments.
This is where I find myself inadvertantly making comparisons between the two. Contrasted with The West Wing's supporting cast, House of Cards is pretty shallow in that department. Since it's basically a two person show, anytime Frank and Claire are offscreen, things kind of pull the drag chute. The strength of TWW is it's repertory cast of players. Having dozens of well drawn characters to play off each other gives the show a show a more solid foundation to tell stories from.
While the strength of Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright's performances elevate House of Cards, it simply cannot live up to the character buffet that is TWW. I have to give this round to the West Wing.
Visuals & Cinematography
This is David Fincher's bread and butter and while he doesn't direct every episode, the show definitely has his visual style in mind. Fincher's always been a filmmaker who knows how to walk the fine line between having style and showing off. The device of having Frank Underwood talk directly to camera is handled about as well at it can be from a visual standpoint (I'll get to it's effectiveness in good time).
And of course, I can't talk about the visual elements of these shows without mentioning the "walk 'n talks". Aaron Sorkin loves to write long patches of back and forth dialog (and I love to hear long patches of back and forth dialog, so everybody wins) and he needed a visual way to make it more interesting. So, the walk 'n talk was created. It allows characters to have long conversations and then break off into other conversations as other participants come in and out. It seems like a simple thing, but it gives a unique energy to Sorkin productions that have borrowed the technique since (and technically before, in it's prototype stage on "SportsNight"). The West Wing takes place in an environment where the world moves so fast one can barely keep up and the walk and talk style is a perfect way to convey the energy of one of the most stressful workplaces on the planet.
Even so, I have to give this category to House of Cards. The show has production value to spare and enough visual flourish to give it it's own flavour. While The West Wing occasionally created epic moments visually (Jed Bartlett's angry rant in Latin against god in "The Two Cathedrals" immediately springs to mind) it was more often character and actor performance that left the strongest impression.
Sorkin wins. Next category.
Ok, I guess I could probably go a little further on this one. This is the part where I get to post youtube videos of my favourite scenes. This is the fun part.
If you threatened me with a hot poker and told me to name my favourite character from this show, first of all congrats on being a crazy person who threatens people with hot pokers, and secondly it would be a real challenge for me because my answer changes regularly. Even under that circumstance, I'd have to think about it. Scenes like the ones above are the reason why. Trust me when I say that pretty much every character on the show gets a chance to hit one out of the park on a pretty regular basis.
I would describe Aaron Sorkin in the same way as I would describe David Mamet. They are two writers who have very unique rhythm and cadence to their dialog. If you had told me when the show first premiered, that a show about government would become my favourite, I would never have believed it. It's a credit to the actors and writers that have created these people to life.
And speaking of great writing and acting...Then there is Toby Ziegler.
Ok, so maybe I do have a favourite character.
This all comes back to my biggest problem with House of Cards. While the cast do their best to give the show some "oomphf!", the glimmer of greatness is never quite reached. There are some fun lines and moments where the show crackles, but it never quite establishes a baseline. That leads to Kevin Spacey going more over the top with his performance to try and sell the words. For comparison, here's a compilation of Frank Underwood's best moments. (Spoilers ahoy!)
You can almost hear the writers of those lines high-fiving themselves. Kevin Spacey does his damndest to sell the lines, but it reminds me a lot of the movie "Sin City". Words that I'm sure read great on the page suddenly seem hammy and over the top (and not in a good way) when spoken. At certain points, Kevin Spacey becomes positively Foghorn Leghorn-esque in his hammy southern accent...Ah-say-ah-say boy! I hate to say it, because he is one of my favourite actors, but when the first thing brought to mind by his performance is a cartoon rooster (or the Country Lawyer Hybrid Chicken from "Futurama"), the trolley has jumped the tracks somewhere and we've veered into farce territory.
So, I guess this leads into the final category...
The Lead Character
I must admit, feel like I have been a little unkind to Mr. Spacey so far and that's not my intention. He is really the only reason to come back to the series a second time. I truly admire the man's talents, and I feel I have to stress that there is a lot of fun to be had in watching him play Frank Underwood. I would rather see an actor try and fail then not try at all. It's a shame too, because when Kevin isn't busy twirling an a imaginary mustache while talking to camera, Frank becomes a very interesting character. He's a monster, but we occasionally see the redeeming qualities pop up to the surface. He's sociopathic, yet has some wonderful low key scenes with Claire that proves that even monsters are capable of affection. It's almost like his over the top hammy southern shtick is the con he's trying to pull on the audience. It's a put on whenever he's talking to us, we get the Foghorn Leghorn cartoony southern accent, we get the hammy sarcastic one liners, we get the overwrought dialog. In that way Frank Underwood saves the biggest...ahem "FU" for us. We think we're on the inside track, getting to see the real him, when it seems to me that we're the ones being played with. We see the low key, real Frank Underwood several times in his interactions with other characters and it becomes clear that his ability to be a wolf in sheep's clothing has allowed him to put one over on us. Makes sense considering he's all about "charm and disarm". By the time he commits truly despicable acts from which there is no return, we have become conditioned to like him. It's Walter White Goes to Washington. The problem is, with Walter, we saw the transformation. With Frank Underwood, he starts of as a son of a bitch and turns into a ruthless killer (shit...spoilers!) so the journey goes from feeling bad to worse. It doesn't quite work the same as we're just watching terrible people destroy the lives of those around them without anything to break up the darkness.
On the other side, we have something of a toss up in regards to who the lead of the West Wing really is. This one is interesting because there was something of a bait and switch when The West Wing first premiered. The show was originally to be built around Rob Lowe's character of White House Deputy Communications Director Sam Seabourne. That lasted about as long as it took for people to realize that "Starring Rob Lowe" wasn't a great selling point. Martin Sheen only appeared in a short (but very memorable) scene in the first episode. The POTUS was originally only going to be a recurring character, popping in every once in a while but not a continual presence.
Did the President of the United States just intimate that he prefers his pornography to be cheap? One of many reasons to like this guy. Suddenly, calling Kanye West a jackass on a live mic isn't such a gaffe.
With that scene, any thought about President Barlett not being a central character went out the window.
The audience ultimately decides who the more interesting character is. It's the same reason the Simpsons became more about Homer and less about Bart as the show progressed.
Even still, the President is not the lead character of the West Wing (insofar as an ensemble can have a lead character). Sure, he became the central figure, but he's not the most important character. That honour belongs to Bradley Whitford's Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman. It's his story arc we follow from beginning to end in the series. The West Wing is at a basic level, about how the student eventually becomes the master. Josh goes from learning under the wisdom tree from Leo McGarry (my second favourite character if you put a hot poker to my face and asked me who my second favourite was...getting pretty specific for a hot poker wielding maniac) to trying to guide his own candidate to the Oval Office.
This one is pretty hard to choose due to the fact that the characters are so wildly different. Frank Underwood is a post Walter White anti-protagonist. The villain whose story we follow as he spirals down the moral rabbit hole. Josh Lyman is a good guy. In today's television landscape it may make him a little boring, but he's easy to root for.
(By the way, if you have told me when "Billy Madison" came out that the guy who played the little weaselly villain would eventually play some really likeable everyman characters, I would have laughed in your face.)
I can't really call this one yet, as Frank Underwood's story has yet to be completed. At this point redemption is out of reach and so his fall from power must be very hard in order for the show to have any sort of redemptive meaning (even Game of Thrones will inevitably result in some form of victory). As of right now, Josh Lyman is the more satisfying character, but that could easily change.
I don't think it'll come as much of a surprise based on some of my comments earlier. I unreservedly think The West Wing is the better production. House of Cards seemed to have great ambitions to be a sweeping political drama about the quest for power, but the pieces just don't quite fit together as well. My most common thought while watching the show was "with this production value and writing quality like The West Wing, this could have been one of the best series of all time". As it is, it's a ham fisted political drama, written by people who don't understand or care about politics. In my view (which is all this is), the show is basically a thriller which uses a Washington backdrop the same way Elvis movies used a jailhouse (rock!) or Hawaii. It get's bogged down in nihilism, mistaking darkness for drama, and I don't really see any victories to be had there. I'm big on seeing consequences to actions and House of Cards ultimately tests the bounds of believably in regards to how much a person like Frank could get away with without arousing suspicion.
For it's naivete, The West Wing at least tries to remain true to life in showing not so glamorous sausage grinding aspect of governance. People are fallible and even those with good intentions are capapble of screwing up big time (one of the major plotlines involves the President concealing a major health issue during the election). And it's to the credit of a phenomenal cast and a talented writing staff that they managed to make government an interesting subject for television. It's a show built on examining the complexities of not only trying to govern a nation, but to govern individual lives. Even though the frame work is based in government, the soul of The West Wing is rooted in humanity in all of its flawed, horrible, wonderful, magical variety. They don't shy away from darkness, but they don't revel in it either.
House of Cards had the pedigree to be great. Instead, it was pretty good, but nothing I've felt the need to go back and watch again. I make it a point, usually once a year, to rewatch the West Wing in it's entirety and that tells you pretty much all you need to know.