On Wednesday, January 27th, I had the pleasure of attending House of Cards: Politics, Television, and Ethics at the Ripley Center. The program was led by Stef Woods, an instructor in the American Studies program at American University’s department of history, recently taught a class titled Politics, TV Series, and Ethics. Her 2015 Smithsonian Associates program on politics, class, and marketing in The Hunger Games grew out of a course she led on the trilogy of young-adult novels. As a woman who wears many hats (some simultaneously), she certainly was able to provide some fascinating insight at the House of Cards event.
“Former attorney Stef Woods was known as DC’s Carrie Bradshaw, thanks to her uncensored City Girl blog.” - The Washingtonian
The evening began with a warm introduction and keen perspective into Woods’ diverse experiences and roles before we dove into the topic, beginning with the inspiration for House of Cards.
For those who haven’t heard, House of Cards is a Netflix original series adapted from BBC’s mini-series which was based on the original novel by Michael Dobbs. The show centers on the scheming congressman Francis Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey. The American political thriller gained instant popularity and became the first online-only show to be nominated for an Emmy in 2013. Lead actors Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, who plays Frank Underwood’s wife, have won Golden Globes for their performances. After a preview took social media outlets by storm, fans are eagerly awaiting the premiere of season four scheduled for this March on Netflix.
Woods shared a Kevin Spacey quote to illustrate the major difference between the American and British versions of the series: ‘The original was about a wily, murderous politician worming his way to becoming Prime Minister. This is about a wily, murderous politician worming his way to the White House. It aint your daddy’s West Wing!”
Before we looked deeper into the interplay among politics, ethics, and corruption, Woods analyzed an overview of the role and inspiration for each key character in the series. Beginning with the main character, Frank Underwood, Woods noted that he is loosely based on both President Ford and President Johnson. Underwood’s rise to the presidency follows the same path as President Ford’s. Vice President Spiro resigned, Nixon appointed Ford, and Ford took office following Nixon’s impeachment.
Much of Underwood’s accomplishments and personality, however, are reflective of President Johnson. Both created ambitious social programs (Great Society and America Works). Additionally, Underwood’s effective and stern demeanor can be attributed to President Johnson’s similar method of engaging with his constituents.
It is also a common assumption to compare Underwood to Italian Renaissance politician and philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli due to their shared cunning cynicism. Spacey said in a recent interview that he doesn’t have any judgements toward Frank Underwood’s character. He simply shows up, plays the role honestly, and allows the audience to decide how they interpret the controversial congressman.
Woods also pointed out the many Shakespearean techniques that are incorporated. Underwood commonly uses the “breaking the 4th wall” concept of speaking directly into the camera to the viewers which was used in Richard the III. Additionally, Macbeth can be seen as inspiration for the character development of the Underwoods. Macbeth’s desire of power over money and Lady Macbeth’s relentless encouragement of seizing power by any means necessary are mirrored in the Underwoods.
After a brief intermission, the audience was pleased to discover that one of Frank Underwood’s secret security agents from the show, Lamont Easter, was in the audience. While he did offer some fascinating insight to audience members’ question, although he was not able to disclose any details for the highly anticipated upcoming season.
Woods went on the speak more about the American multinational internet streaming media source known as Netflix. She broke down the stats, noting that the company has 75 million subscribers and a revenue of $6 billion. Netflix differs from large networks due to the fact that Netflix caters to a small, educated audience, so there is no need for ads. This scenario allows for slower paced plots and binge episode viewing. She described how Netflix series have really fostered a sense of community with its viewers in large part to social media.
In addition to the intriguing theme for the show and the master corporation to foster it, Woods pointed out the importance of the setting. Surprisingly, many of the filming locations for the show are not in D.C. Many scenes were filmed nearby though, especially in Baltimore. Avid fans can easily picture the show’s intro of time lapses illustrating prominent D.C. locations. Wood’s mentioned that the opening scenes of the show are cast in a gritty, grungy way to symbolize the dark and thrilling aspects of the show.
Many members of the audience were anxious to hear how truly realistic House of Cards is. Woods revealed that the congressional approval rating of 9-14% could definitely be a product of a sense of cynicism and a lack of trust in American politicians. Many aspects of the story are reflected in reality such as corporate influence over the Hill, teachers unions, and so forth. House of Cards even strategically released their trailer for the fourth season the night of the December 15th GOP debate. The trailer consisted of a fictional presidential campaign ad for Frank Underwood in 2016. By releasing the video at this time and specifically relating it to the upcoming presidential election, House of Cards helps enhance that sense of a community for their exploding fan base while getting viewers excited for the next season.
Woods noted it as an example of “the real world and entertainment colliding in an interesting way.” This makes sense because so often people are excited to dress up as their favorite superhero on Halloween, meet their favorite characters at Disneyworld, or in this case…vote for Frank Underwood? The use of the Underwood campaign trailer which simultaneously acted as the season trailer, was an excellent use of artistic license. The storyline is definitely very successful thanks to the anti-heroes that lead and cause the drama. Now the real question is, what is our beloved anti-hero Frank Underwood plotting for season four?
Tune in March 4th on Netflix to find out!
Are you a House of Cards fan? Interested in Stef Wood’s Politics, TV Series, and Ethics class? Check out Stef Woods’s website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram!