BOB GARFIELD: Let’s say you’re an American. And let’s say you therefore get most of your information from TV. You’ve long had two ways to form your understanding of inside Washington, DC.
MAN: We the undersigned senators in accordance with the provisions of rule 22 of the standing rules...
BOB GARFIELD: CSpan, viewed by dozens of Americans each day. Or, there was this:
West Wing Clip: Are you alright Mr. President?
President: No one was hurt, someone shot at the press room from the sidewalk.
Murphy Brown: Well, well, well not so full of yourself when you’re not surrounded by your cronies are you congressman?
Get Smart: In the last 8 days, ten blondes have been abducted. What do you make of that?
Man: Well, either it’s a conspiracy or somebody’s got a pretty weird hobby.
BOB GARFIELD: West Wing and. Murphy Brown. Get Smart. Just two examples of how -- ever since the invention of the medium, Washington has served as an entertainment setting -- reflecting our abiding interest in pretend law enforcement, pretend intelligence gathering, pretend politics and pretend governance. But things have changed. These days viewers aren’t just sporadically consuming Washington fare, but bingeing. On House of Cards, Alpha House, Veep, Scandal and an even dozen other shows currently set in the district or its environs. Because, it turns out, not only does the lifeblood of democracy flow through this city, TV-wise it is O-negative blood: the universal donor.
BEAU WILLAMON: You can have comedy, you can have satire, you can have a thriller.
BOB GARFIELD: Beau Willamon, low-level Democratic apparatchik turned writer, is the creator and executive producer of House of Cards.
BEAU WILLAMON: Because there are so many different types of stories to be told in DC and because the stakes are so high, it sort of lends itself to a whole range of possibilities.
BOB GARFIELD: Such as, for instance, the genre of omniscient, omnipotent intelligence and security agencies with the ability to get a satellite image of a terrorist on a big screen in four seconds and protect the homeland every week with only 6 employees. Like Homeland, Covert Affairs or NBC’s The Blacklist.
BLACKLIST: After Rifkin was caught, Cooper had him flown from Bagrahm to Andrews Air Force base Virginia. From there prison transport took him to a federal holding facility in Alexandria .
BOB GARFIELD: Andrews Air Force Base and Alexandria. How very Beltway. Not to be confused with Inside the Beltway -- the arcane geography of official Washington that is a genre unto itself. We are awash in programs devoted ostensibly to how Washington works. It works cynically, it seems -- whether portrayed in comedies, like Amazon Prime’s Alpha House:
Congressman: There's a reason why half of all Americans in Afghanistan are private contractors. They get the job done cheaper and more efficiently than the military. Carthage Security Systems is the gold standard in private security.
Congressman 2: Hey, Isn’t Carthage Security one of your biggest contributors?
Congressman 3: Gee, you think?
BOB GARFIELD: Or the West Wing-meets-Macbeth sensation, House of Cards:
HOUSE OF CARDS: Trust me or not, but I’m about to be confirmed as the vice president and our relationship extends to the oval office now. Don’t step out of the sunlight for no reason.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s Kevin Spacey, as vice-president designate Frank Underwood moments before doing something, very very evil to a reporter played by Kate Mara. I’ll say this in code, for spoiler-alert’s sake: Underwood submitted to the impulse felt by many a politician by ushing-pay the e-porter-ray in front of a moving Metro ain-tray.
HOUSE OF CARDS: Zoe Barnes: I want to believe you Francis--
[train arriving, Zoe screams]
BOB GARFIELD: It’s ludicrous of course. Vice presidents never take the subway. But this Netflix Original melodrama about duplicity, corruption and ruthless grasping for power has taken hold -- because the spot-on details of legislative procedure, political horsetrading and underlying ruthlessness feel sooooo real. Beau Willamon,
BEAU WILLAMON: Very few politicians, arguably none, operate with the extremes to which Francis Underwood operates. But I do think there are elements, a lust for power, choices that politicians are making all the time that force them to confront their own ethical boundaries that are a fabric of Washington. I think that, collectively, all of the 16 shows out there might begin to paint a cumulative portrait of Washington.
ANDY GREENWALD: The version of Washington that exists on the majority of television shows bears almost no relation to the actual gridlocked place where theoretical governing actually gets done.
BOB GARFIELD: Andy Greenwald has written about DC-based TV for Grantland.
ANDY GREENWALD: What we instead see is a sort of Roman Colosseum full of schemers and suits backstabbing and front stabbing their way to power.
BOB GARFIELD: The grand opera is fetching, he says, but false. While Spacey as the House Democratic whip wrangling votes has some procedural verisimilitude, and his moral bankruptcy plays to our worst suspicions, for the ring of truth, Greenwald prefers Julia Louis Dreyfus’s HBO comedy Veep.
JONAH: POTUS is anxious after recent events that you don’t feel he’s trying to nudge you out of the process of government
SELENA: Oh isnt that thoughtful, Amy?
JONAH: So he would like you to head up a program that is very important and very dear to his heart--
SELENA: No, no no no no. you do not do this to me. Do not say that it is obesity. Do not say that to me!
JONAH: It’s obesity.
JONAH: I’m sorry ma’am but you have drawn the fat straw.
ANDY GREENWALD: Sad sack people with giant egos and lanyards hanging around their necks and bad pleated pants. It demystifies it in a way that I think some people might find ultimately more depressing than the story of a backroom whip who tramples over the Constitution.
BOB GARFIELD: Armando Iannucci, creator of Veep. was indeed struck by the grinding glamourlessness within the palaces of power.
ARMANDO IANNUCCI. The West Wing is just a warren of tiny, tiny rooms, and they cram as many people as possible into these tiny rooms. So a table that is room enough for three or four computer monitors actually has 7 or 8 of them on it, and people crammed around it. And very respectable, powerful looking middle aged men in suits sitting rumpled up on spare sofas and seats in corridors because there isn't a desk for them.
BOB GARFIELD: So, yes, very true. On the other hand, the conflict is so mundane compared to Scandal, where crisis management team member Quinn Perkins is really Lindsay Dwyer who either did or did not kill her boyfriend and five others with a bomb before being kidnapped and having her identity forcibly changed.
SCANDAL clip: I ran her prints. Don’t worry, I did it myself. which is a good thing because otherwise there would be about half a dozen US agencies looking for her.
BOB GARFIELD: And why not? In a real-world marketplace of ideas that still trades in death panels and Kenyan moles in the Oval Office, where precisely should we suspend disbelief? Veep’s Armando Iannucci:
ARMANDO IANUCCI I think people feel frustrated, that they're not being heard. In the news and in current affairs there is a vacuum because politics isn't progressing. And in that vacuum come idiots like me and comedians and dramatists and turn it into entertainment. It’s our attempt to try and make some kind of sense over what we see as happening on the national political stage. Sense or nonsense.
BOB GARFIELD: The question is: do artists use politics as a prism for refracting our human selves? Or is it merely an exercise in allowing myth to fill in the yawning gaps of our understanding -- like ancient stargazers connecting celestial dots to see the gods? I asked Beau Willamon if the sordid goings on in House of Cards is a proxy for real understanding of the political process.
BEAU WILLAMON: I mean, a proxy for understanding presumes that there is an actual understanding that you can either get right or get wrong, and I don't think that one can pinpoint a clear definable understanding of Washington and the way it works, just like one can't do the same for the soul.
BOB GARFIELD: Good answer, albeit probably beside the point. When it comes to portraying the nation’s capital, what matters is not how Washington works but how television works -- namely with noise and spectacle and trumped up conflict. Always has.
MCLAUGHLIN: Ok quickly quickly!
CLIFT: --and he’s under a lot of pressure to make these reports public--
MCLAUGHLIN: 3 seconds!
TAYLOR: the CIA fight takes a lot longer to recolve.
MAN: It will take so long that there will be a new administration will be in power.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s the McLaughlin Group, just one of many homegrown venues where pundits go every week to be wrong. Call it House of Canards. The only difference is how you take your fiction.