Chris asked me the other night what I thought the opening of House of Cards was telling us, and in fact I think the credits are telling us quite a lot. They’re crystal clear and sped up: we see cars flashing through the capitol’s arteries, clouds contracting and expanding across the sky, trees quivering, day turning into night.
It’s a hyperreality that, taken together, reads as a distancing mechanism. It aestheticizes the show, stripping meaning from the content of the scenes in just the same way that the show itself does. As more than one critic has pointed out, the people of House of Cards are more like chess pieces than characters: agents without agency, pieces the writers move around in order to simulate the prestige dramas of cable networks in the same way that the House Whip moves magnets back and forth to signal the shifting allegiances of a political body concerned with power rather than efficacy, with form rather than content.
House of Cards is a show for generation willing to be outraged but not to act out that outrage. It’s designed to provoke audience engagement, which is precisely the opposite of political engagement. We discuss the political machinations and policies on comment boards and at wine parties instead of discussing actual politics, not apathetic but disenfranchised. Policymic has concluded that we’re not a democracy; House of Cards proves it.
In fact, we could say that House of Cards represents a certain kind of hollowing out: it removes the core of the prestige dramas it strives to imitate, creating a simulacrum of a show rather than the show itself. In a post-industrial America, with a hollowed-out middle class, a hollowed-out economy, and a hollowed-out infrastructure, House of Cards might not the kind of TV show we need, but it’s certainly the kind we deserve.