top of page

Why ‘House of Cards’ is Closer to Today’s Political Reality Than Ever

The Emmy Winning award show has disrupted the bounds of a Political Thriller, but is fiction disrupting the line between reality as well?

House of Cards TV show (Source:

House of Cards is interpreted and viewed as a fanatical political TV show, whose gory depiction of American politics has prompted many to claim the show as a distant reality to actual politics. However, due to recent changes in U.S administrations and the hostile US political climate, the dramatized depictions of the show have shown chilling similarities to that of real US politics. Therefore, the feature delves into discerning the role of Power and Politics from fiction to that of reality and would aim to explore the interplay between the two. The following feature not only aims to challenge the preconceived notions of US politics but also assess the validity of the Television show, as well as discover the relationship between artistic expression and reality.

House of cards is a fictional political show which has 6 seasons. The show has two central figures which are accountable for the vast majority of Power and Politics in House of Cards. The central figure is Frank Underwood, a Democrat from southern California, who in his perception describes himself as one “who pushes the sludge forward, keeping the pipes clean”. His job requires persuading and influencing fellow politicians/senators to pass the bills, keep the country running, but as seen in season 1, Frank Underwood uses this position to manipulate and bend people to his will, forwarding the party’s agenda but more importantly his own agenda. His portrayal throughout the series depicts the prime example of

Power and Politics in the White House. Another central figure in the show is Claire Underwood who shares the same aspirations as her husband, but even more, interestingly shares her spouse’s commitment and inhumane viciousness. Claire Underwood is deceiving to the eye, as her nonchalant tone and posh image, distract people from her fiery ambition. It is clear from the outset that their partnership is not fuelled by their love for each other but their love for power and ambition. It is through their ruthless pragmatism and their constant manipulations which ensure the success of their significant other’s ambitions.

Television series are media forms whose quality film production and outstanding characterization attract viewers. House of Cards, just like many other political thrillers, aims and succeeds to do so. But, every time political thrillers draw the viewers within their storylines, the lines between the onscreen portrayal and reality become blurred. From the very beginning, such shows aim to accomplish a riveting and “hooking” story while creating a rhetoric among the minds of viewers, which cascades to a conversation. However, before discerning the interplay of such shows with reality, we must establish the criteria for assessing one.

First and foremost, we must establish all genres of political entertainment portrayed to us, thus establish typologies, which would provide further clarity. There are nine typologies which encompass politics. These include entertainment talk shows, journalism (soft news), entertainment television events, fictional political dramas, political documentaries, comedic satire, and situational satire.

Figure 2: A typology for the study of entertainment TV and politics (Holbert, 2005, p. 445).

A shows’ riveting storyline depends on the political intent and the intensity of the shows. Thus the 2 aforementioned factors (intent and intensity) influence the impression of the show on the viewers. Political intensity is depending on four aspects which are political issues, socio-political issues, political characters, and state officials. The intent is dependent upon the medium of the shows, whether it is informative or fictional. The marking for such criteria would be marked from a scale of one to three, one being no intent to portray politics, whilst three being an excellent portrayal of politics

Figure 3: Matrix for the analysis of political communication presented as information and as entertainment (Kleinen-von Königslöw, 2013, p. 41).

Thus, shows such as Political Talk shows belong in the first quadrant since they intend to demonstrate political news and are information oriented. Therefore, a presumption is made, that such shows impart the most political information out of all the other shows. Political shows such as House of Cards, Scandal etc. belong in the 3rd quadrant under fictional political productions, since such shows aggressively demonstrate and portray American politics, however they are entertainment based.

However, this is where House of Cards, breaks the 4th wall of fictionalisation, as eerily enough, the portrayal of certain instances are really close to the Political Reality we see today.

The show’s producer Beau Williamson, who himself has dedicated majority of his career to politics, has noted the similarities, and has stated that house of cards aims to draw up frighteningly true allusions which might go unnoticed. House of Cards has been critically acclaimed for its vicious and savage storytelling of US politics, however a few parallels between the acclaimed show and the political system, make viewers revise the historical correctness of the show.

Zoe Barnes and Frank Underwood’s relationship alluding to Bill Clinton’s sex scandal: - Zoe and Frank’s relationship is portrayed to be a twisted mutual relationship, where Frank leaks the stories of the capital to forward his own motive, and where Zoe repays him through kind. The show’s portrayal of a sexual relationship between an old politician and young lady, is reminiscent to Bill Clinton alleged affair with white house intern Monica Lewinsky. The infamous scandal is similar to the portrayal of the relationship between Frank and Zoe, as in both instances, the men in power (Frank Underwood and Bill Clinton) abused their powers by asking for sexual favours.

John F Kennedy and Frank Underwood’s relationships: - Claire Underwood, like her husband, is just as vicious and ruthless. The pair’s co-operative nature to preserve their power is similar to John F Kennedy and her wife Jackie Kennedy. It has been historically noted that the term political wife arose from Jackie Kennedy’s involvement in state affairs and protecting her husband’s interests. The first lady was said to be just as politically competent as her husband, and used her position to persuade senators and have them on the president’s side. This is depicted in the show through the portrayal of Claire’s and Frank’s relationship, as Claire acted as the implementer and translator of her husbands’ policies. While Frank used his “ruthless pragmatism” to instil fear, Claire uses her goodwill façade to ease senators and persuade them to be on Frank’s side.

Equal partnership: - Frank and Claire are depicted to be a lethal unit, which mutually benefits. Case in point as Frank Underwood becomes the President of United States, he appoints Claire as UN ambassador. Their relationship however is not to dissimilar to that of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton played a crucial role in the election of Bill Clinton as president, as her constant appearances with her husband coupled with her likability and credible past, made them a convincing and formidable partnership in the White House. However, after Bill Clinton’s term ended, the former president laid the groundwork for future presidential run by his wife Hillary Clinton. Thus, both partners realised each other’s potential and had no qualms with regards to the distribution of power, thus both couples (fictitious as well as real life) were equal partners.

Similarities between Lyndon B Johnson and Frank Underwood: - The parallel between Lyndon B Johnson and Frank Underwood is a resounding one, as contextually both align identically, in terms of their road to presidency as well as their method of operation. Both men became president indirectly, as Lyndon B Johnson was appointed President after the assassination of president John F Kennedy whilst Frank became president, by deviously impeaching fictitious president, President Garret Walker. It has also been noted that their methodology is quite similar. Although Underwood is ruthless and morally corrupt, both Lyndon B Johnson as well as Frank Underwood, get the job done tactfully and efficiently.

Both politician’s display an aptitude for manipulation. Similar to Frank Underwood, Lyndon B Johnson was able to sway votes for rewards and both had innumerable personal alliances. Conspiracy theory over Lyndon B Johnson’s orchestration of John F Kennedy’s assassination is similar to Frank Underwood’s theory of impeachment: - Considering the manipulative nature of Lyndon B Johnson, conspiracy theorists as well as some disputed historians, have linked Lyndon B Johnson to the orchestration of John F Kennedy’s assassination. This theory yields a chilling resemblance, to Frank Underwood’s Machiavellian tactics and is identical to Frank’s premeditated trap set to impeach then president, Garret Walker in house of cards. Their thirst for power as well as their vicious traits, lend an argument towards the resemblance of the 2 politicians.

Dick Cheney Vice presidency: - Prior to the vacancy of the Vice-Presidential spot, Frank Underwood wanted to be seen as nothing but an aid to the President, however after being carefully manipulated the entire time, the president chose Frank Underwood, as his Vice president. The following instance draws up a striking comparison to Dick Cheney’s appointment as Vice president. Said to have amateur political compass, Dick was considered a close advisor to Bill Clinton, and was in the inner circles of US politics. Thus, his appointment of vice president came due to his close relationships with Bill Clinton, similar to the fake relationship perpetuated by Frank Underwood, as an important friend and advisor towards President Garret Walker.

American Author, Neil Postman argues truth is lost is in the constant conquest in search of amusement, thus what we might perceive to be a close gap between politics in fiction and reality, maybe just our presumptions since we are flummoxed by entertainment, whose opinions we as viewers imbibe. However, contrary to Neil Postman’s viewpoint, today’s society might just be as convoluted as presented in the show and even though the chosen resources illustrate the idea of “Alternate Reality”.

bottom of page