I’ve enjoyed the dark, borderline campy House of Cards since the beginning, but I have to be honest: this new season is just a little too over the top. Frank Underwood is improbably elected President of the United States, despite losing the popular vote to a more experienced and temperamental candidate, in an angry and divisive election with gloomy hints of foreign interference. On the eve of his first foreign trip, after a drawn-out and troubled transition, his administration is rocked by a series of scandals. It starts when Underwood fires the head of the FBI—an act which in the real world would be seen as a brazen Watergate-scale obstruction of justice—and ends with the identification of a mysterious “high level official” inside the White House with secret ties to Russia. The series opener ends with a shocking right turn: to appease his base and troll the world stage, he commits the United States to pulling out of a climate agreement supported by nearly every nation on Earth, not to mention 70 percent of Americans and members of his own Cabinet.
House of Cards is clearly meant to be a caricature—played for maximum effect to tell a dark story about power, the people who crave it, and the people who are made and destroyed in its orbit. But this season’s frothy soap-opera storylines, garish spectacle, and open indifference to public decorum feel way off the charts. Moving from Netflix to CNN was a bold shift, but the over-the-top plot twists and documentary style have weakened the show’s dramatic punch. It’s just not believable. Do high-ranking members of his administration really guide world affairs based on secret back-channels with foreign operatives? Was his Secretary of Energy nominee really unaware of that's department’s role in securing our nuclear stockpile? And that ghastly scene where he and the Middle-Eastern leaders fight terrorism by laying their hands on a glowing orb—a little on the nose with the symbolism, don’t you think?
The actual House of Cards still draws its strength from an enduringly dark view of politics that most Americans share, no matter which party is in power. Public trust in government peaked at 77 percent in 1964 and has bounced around 20 percent for the past decade. Aside from a brief spike post-9/11, the last time more than half of us trusted our leaders was during Nixon’s first term.
Although the new season is tonally identical to its predecessors, the fact that we kicked over the political applecart in 2016 puts the show in a radically different context. The first few episodes directly reference today's politics: a Constitutionally dubious travel ban, a manipulated election, voter suppression (of ex-urban Republicans this time), the spectre of martial law, and the old political chestnut of changing the subject to bury bad news. But it no longer scans as a sort of mirror-world escapism. The first four seasons made sense as a shadowy contrast to Obama’s second term: when reality is all arugula and Dad jeans (and drone strikes and mass surveillance), the show’s craven mischief tickled our brains the same way horror movies and roller coasters do. (A bit like the West Wing served as a counter-narrative for the Bush years, a fantasy of government where people read books, quoted philosophers, spoke in coherent paragraphs, and truly aspired to serve the people.)
The show imagines an alternate universe where the Clintons really are as scheme-y and malevolent as the far-right (and, after the 2016 primaries, quite a few on the left) believe—an idea that’s easy to indulge when the real world feels like it’s still on the rails. But now that we live in a political climate of tacky pageantry and blunt nationalism, with an approach to engaging with the public and press that is cynical in the most literal sense, where the most useful frame to interpret anything that happens on the national stage is chaos magic, the show’s plotlines have converged with reality in a way that makes it much harder to watch as a diversion. If anything, it paints a frightening picture of what people filled with greed and avarice and hunger for power can do when they have actual skills, a plan, a flair for subtlety, and the consistency to play the long game. These days, Veep makes for better political escapism, if only because on that show, the circus is funny and the consequences are harmless.