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Electoral Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

Our strange political reality has crashed right into ‘Veep’ and ‘House of Cards’ — with interesting results

(HBO/Netflix/Ringer illustration)
(HBO/Netflix/Ringer illustration)

It’s long been the running joke that House of Cards reflects Washington, D.C., as it sees itself, while Veep shows D.C. as it is. The two series have been tied together since their inception, less than a year apart: Both feature a vice president who managed to inherit the position of commander-in-chief, but craves the validation of a clean electoral victory. Both feature endless wheeling and dealing among pathological narcissists whose self-interest transcends ideology. (Veep never bothers with party ID; on House of Cards, it’s the Democrats fronting the new War on Terror.) Both shows have election subplots focusing on the same bizarre procedural tangle — what happens when neither candidate grabs 270 electoral votes? — that our Constitution technically allows but our electorate hasn’t yet pulled off. But House of Cards vision of the capital as a snakepit of Machiavellian masterminds is inherently flattering, while Veep’s flailing incompetence tends to inspire performative assurances that politicos are laughing with the show, not being laughed at. Just look at the casting: Cards regularly attracts flotillas of game guest stars from inside the Beltway, while Veep recruits the likes of Patton Oswalt and Hugh Laurie from the ranks of its fellow comedians.

Five seasons into House of Cards and six seasons into Veep, there has been an obvious shift in context: Two shows conceived in the Obama era debuted their newest seasons in the middle of a new and drastically altered political epoch. Neither show had time to respond to the current firestorm — both shows were in production during the 2016 election and its immediate aftermath — though both will seem like they’re responding to it anyway. But there’s another, smaller change, too — one that has less to do with being a TV show about politics and more with just being a TV show. Both House of Cards and Veep are decidedly in their late periods, when the novelty has worn off. Those two changes are connected: Both shows’ attempts to address their potential stagnation have become hopelessly tied up in their newfound resonance.

Because House of Cards is often criticized for being nowhere near as insightful as it presents itself to be, this newfound topicality is a boon — resonance granted by chance rather than achieved through effort. And because Veep aims to one-up Washington’s own insanity, landing too close to the genuine article — or having to deal with a reality that’s veered into the nonsensical — is more burden than advantage. After all, even based-on-a-true-story fiction is supposed to invent as well as embellish. The real world’s increasingly outlandish politics makes that harder by the day.

Veep’s challenges are mostly rooted in bad timing: The show is now neck-and-neck with its satirical subjects rather than three steps ahead. Season 5 ended by having the first female president lose her bid for proper election, and resumed in a world where the first female major-party candidate had just suffered a crushing defeat. Getting Selina Meyer out of the White House was the next logical step in a story about high-level failure, and then a pragmatic plot decision became an accidental premonition. When the moment of truth arrived, Selina couldn’t grab the brass ring; less than five months later, Hillary Clinton couldn’t either. As both Meyer and Clinton plunge forward, the parallels continue: A major subplot this season involves Selina drafting her memoirs; a recent Clinton profile focused on her book-writing process. Selina doesn’t want our pity, and Veep doesn’t want to inspire it, but emotions far messier than laughter are now an unavoidable part of the Veep experience. The election got tragedy in Veep’s schadenfreude.

With its cast no longer united under the roof of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Veep began Season 6 by scattering its characters to the winds, with each of their new homes offering a novel angle on the political ecosystem. Dan Egan personified the vapidity of cable news; Jonah Ryan, now a congressman, became a tea party Republican in all but name. (He’s bankrolled by a blatant Sheldon Adelson type and just instigated a government shutdown over the debt ceiling.) In virtually every new direction Veep has gone, however, it’s been beaten to the punch by the real world. It’s not easy to snicker at the inanity of TV journalism now that its repercussions are under such a microscope — and behind-the-scenes harassment scandals just aren’t the comic fodder they used to be. Even if the headlines Veep were inadvertently echoing weren’t so grim, however, they rob the show of one of the core elements of comedy: surprise. The insults remain acrobatic and the performances committed, but they’re now more likely to provoke a knowing headshake than an outright guffaw.

Where Veep was blindsided as it tested out some new tricks, House of Cards has doubled down on the histrionics. For Netflix’s neo-Macbeth, the off-screen shake-ups have proved slightly more advantageous. The show’s aspirations to trenchant commentary were dealt a seeming death blow in its lackluster third season. In 2015, the series gave its antihero exactly what he wanted — the presidency — only to realize that all Frank Underwood wanted to do with the authority he’d spent his life acquiring was preserve it. That state of affairs presented an obvious “What now?” problem, while calling into question the entire project of the show. Season 4 recovered with a pleasantly wild assassination attempt and a bit of electoral intrigue. The show had reverted to its first-season style: not necessarily smart, but at the very least entertaining.

Season 5 has a leg up House of Cards has never enjoyed before: seeming clairvoyance. The dominant theme this year is fearmongering, complete with Frank’s travel-ban-like restrictions, deliberate distraction from an investigative committee, and voter suppression during an election. These events aren’t disruptions in the context of the show itself; House of Cards has been hammering home just how far the Underwoods are willing to go for so long that their manufacturing of a cyberthreat is par for the course. What saves otherwise well-trodden themes and character beats from exhaustion comes from the familiarity audiences now bring to the show, not new sensations the show delivers to audiences. “This is beyond the norm,” a scandalized congressman gasps at Frank in the premiere. “I don’t care,” he growls. The exchange feels right at home in this fictional D.C.; this is what Frank Underwood has been doing all along. It’s in the real world where trampling over custom has felt so disconcerting.

Throughout their extensive runs — Julia Louis-Dreyfus has been the reigning Emmy champion for a full half-decade; House of Cards numbered chapters now extend, remarkably, into the 60s — Veep and House of Cards have served as each other’s fun-house mirror images. Though they see D.C. through radically different lenses, both series are working from the same starting point. Which is why it’s so surprising that the rupture in their mutual inspiration has affected them in opposite ways. Together, the shows feel like a lesson in how the television viewing experience can be as much a matter of what audiences bring to the table as what the shows themselves serve up. Veep is the more technically accomplished show, but in satirizing a hard-to-laugh-at moment, it’s got the tougher task. House of Cards can be slapdash and soapy, but it’s a fit for the current moment. In fictional D.C., it’s harder to laugh than to cry.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.