The world looked very different during the last House of Cards season premiere. Back in March 2016, the man who went on to become President had yet to demolish the crowded GOP primary field. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were still squaring off to lead the Democrats.
House of Cards also seemed safely within the realm of fiction. It was a series rich in Shakespearean antics–corruption, scandal, and blackmail–that seemed to pose little threat of becoming real.
Even as our current political climate tends toward the chaotic, House of Cards stood apart for the Underwood’s was sleeker, cleaner and surer-handed approach to scandal. On House of Cards, the FBI director hadn’t been fired in desperation, there was no alleged collusion between Russia and the United States, and Sean Spicer didn’t exist. Fast forward to spring 2017, and the question on everybody’s lips is less what will happen to Frank and Claire Underwood and more whether House of Cards will keep up to our new normal.
The thing is, it shouldn’t, and it doesn’t need to.
When Veep’s sixth season premiered in April, there were a few concerns: the Trump administration was exactly as bumbling as most characters working for Selina Meyer, and real life seemed to borrow from plot devices (particularly when Trump’s penchant for Twitter paralleled an ep in which Selina’s tweets spark a near-catastrophe with the Chinese). So it was easy to worry about where Veep could fit in and whether the incompetence of its characters could still shock or amuse amidst America’s joke of an administration.
But then it was fine. First, because the current season tackles what life’s like for a former president after the White House, and also because the best type of political entertainment doesn’t worry about its closeness to real life.
Every politics-centric series is rooted in something bigger than the trials and tribulations of Washington. Veep is a comedy about office politics, and best comparable to The Office or The Thick Of It, also created by Veep creator Armando Ianucci. Like Macbeth and Breaking Bad, House of Cards is an examination of power and loyalty, using its husband/wife dynamic to heighten the drama and provide a natural foil for our protagonist. Scandal and The Good Fight are legal dramas that take from real-life events (The Good Fight references the Trump presidency on the regular), but they primarily root themselves in issues of morality as main characters reconcile and fine tune their ethics amidst internal and professional conflict. Even The Handmaid’s Tale–a series that offers a glimpse into a future certain members of the GOP seem to want–boils down to a story of survival. Political entertainment is never just about politics. But the reason it resonates so much is because of what it says about people.
And that’s what makes House of Cards so effective. Sure, it’s jarring to think that policies and promises are made in closed door meetings as a result of blackmail, but it’s perhaps scarier to consider the rank incompetency lampooned in Veep as our political normal. Frank and Claire Underwood’s manipulations and sociopathy aren’t anomalies found just in the White House. Frank and Claire could be anyone. They could leave Washington and pursue careers in Silicon Valley or transfer to Brooklyn Nine-Nine to work their way up the police ranks. They embody the determination to conquer the world with no empathy to keep them grounded. And while Washington gives them the perfect backdrop through which to enact their power plays, they could do damage anywhere. And would.
Ultimately, the reason we like House of Cards–or any political-centric series–has nothing to do with its relationship to real-life politics. So to put the onus on Cards, Veep, or any show staking a claim on their own version of Washington defeats the purpose of scripted television and limits the creativity of the storytellers. The realities of a Trump presidency shouldn’t affect most of these series at all because these shows take place in worlds where President Trump never happened. And it isn’t the job of a showrunner to take our shitty world into consideration while constructing their own–it’s their job to write good television.
And basing rooting fiction in reality can do the opposite. While The Good Fight exists in the same universe we seem to be living in, it only uses real politics as a springboard for bigger plot points, and it doesn’t react to the news. It isn’t a sketch or late night series. Because if we start to expect shows to fit in with our 2017 landscape, that’s what we’re asking for: either shows so quickly written that they offer caricatures of the characters we knew, or shows that simply re-tell what we’ve already seen. And none of us signed up for those things. (Hell, none of those characters signed up for those things.)
So while the world may look different now than it did when Frank and Claire Underwood ended season four with a cold stare, that’s a non-point. In the Underwoods’ reality, they’re planning and plotting and moving on with their plans. And as our actual world goes more and more to pieces, we can at least root ourselves in that constant: that no matter what Sean Spicer says or how many times Melania swats her husband’s hand away, this particular version of Lord and Lady Macbeth still seek to reign. And they don’t give a shit who Donald Trump is.