Double-down on drama: House of Cards vs. The West Wing

After you finish binging the third season of House of Cards, renew your faith in government by watching the West Wing.

“House of Cards” is a Netflix-produced adaptation of a British television show of the same title. In this program, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the house majority whip, navigates Washington, D.C. with his loyal posse. The show began in 2013 and has received widespread praise for its vivid cinematography, character development and plot.

Also on Netflix are seven seasons of “The West Wing,” a show produced for NBC that ran from 1999-2006. This program follows the executive staff of President Bartlet and their struggles with morality, legacy and mortality. In general, “The West Wing” offers a positive perspective on the role of government and the nature of public servants. On the other hand, “House of Cards” is pessimistic. The main characters are cutthroat Machiavellians who refuse to acknowledge morality, their own limitations or God. It paints the picture of a massive conspiracy in the capitol that threatens to undermine democracy itself.

As a woman, I always gravitate towards female characters. I love that both shows feature powerful women in leadership positions, but on “The West Wing,” the women are independent and completely absorbed by their careers, whereas women on “House of Cards” spend an unrealistic amount of time making whoopee. For example, compare the character of Jackie Sharp from “House of Cards” with CJ Craig on “The West Wing.” Sharp is an exciting character with a vivid backstory and relentless drive, but, sadly, the writers show her having pillowtalk with a lobbyist rather than running the Hill. On the other hand, CJ Craig on “The West Wing” spends more time between the Oval Office and the Press Room than she spends at her own home. She keeps up with her male colleagues without flirtation or innuendo. When she does experience romantic attraction, she prioritizes her career and the goals of the Bartlet administration over all else.

As well as characters, the styles of the two shows are very different. Everything on “House of Cards”is dark. The diction of the characters is aggressive, the set is dimly lit and the music  daunting. In contrast, the style of “The West Wing” is bright and busy. The opening theme is a patriotic anthem that will always hold a special place in my heart. The Oval Office is brightly lit and bustling with activity. The only dark space is the Situation Room, but that’s to be expected.

The most important difference between these shows is how you feel after you watch them. After binge watching “House of Cards,” you want to take a shower, maybe cry a little bit. Between the ruthlessness, the corruption and the pride, you slowly lose faith that public servants are good and America is strong. At first, you glorify Frank Underwood and his devious deeds, but then you realize that, despite aggregating massive amounts of power, the Underwoods are alone and responsible for undermining American democracy, a grave crime.

Compare that feeling to the sense of purpose and pride that you feel after watching “The West Wing.” The plot focuses on the difficult decisions that are made by the executive branch and the unifying power of politics. Almost every character is driven by an intense passion for public service and a desire to do good. They struggle with how to best serve the American people. In addition, for all the political junkies, “The West Wing” covers many more topics than does “House of Cards.”

Overall, “House of Cards” is a good drama with terrible morals, and the West Wing is a good drama that inspires belief in American government.



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