Changing Climates: A Comparison of ‘The West Wing’ and ‘House of Cards’

— By Carly Twehous —

When the critically-acclaimed political drama, The West Wing, first aired, way back in September 1999, headlines were relatively mild, bi-partisan at best, and hardly ever indicated that Bill Clinton was president.

When the equally critically-acclaimed political drama, House of Cards aired, way back in February 2013, North Korea tested its third nuclear bomb, Pope Benedict XVI resigned as pope, and there was a suicide bomber at the U.S. Embassy in Turkey.

These two political dramas are as different as the decades in which they aired, yet each offers an increasingly rare perspective on the leanings of the average American citizen of the time, their perception of government and its role, and the (occasionally fictionalized for dramatic purposes) real-life climate of political figureheads.

The West Wing, as a whole, is the story about the staff and aids working for Martin Sheen’s President Jed Bartlet. The opening scene of the pilot alone is enough to establish how these people feel about their job: Everyone’s answering their pagers (All hail, 1999!) because someone referred to as P.O.T.U.S. has fallen off their bike. Emergency meetings, people called in from their day off, etc. Everyone dropping everything, flashing a my-job-is-so-much-better-than-yours smile, and rushing to help this mysterious P.O.T.U.S.

After each of the returning characters have their “save the cat” moments to ensure that the audience likes them and is willing to follow their stories, Rob Lowe helpfully tells us what the big fuss is about. The President of the United States (P.O.T.U.S.) has fallen off his bike and probably has a boo-boo.

In the opening sequence of House of Cards, Frank Underwood kills a dog. Mercifully, mind you, but, dear Lord, he strangles the life out of that thing and has no qualms about doing so.

The West Wing, as a whole, provides a view of the President’s Office that was probably only possible in a pre-9/11 world. Aids and staff members of the White House love their jobs, are experts in their respective fields, and will lay down life and limb in service of the P.O.T.U.S., even if the worst thing that happens to him during his term is that he falls off his bike. No one questions the legitimacy of the President or his Cabinet or the decisions he makes in regards to the United States as a whole. Even if political leanings differ from “the law of the land” laid down by the current President, he is still given the respect due of his office and title.

Of course, even in this idealistic world, there are conspirators, people out for their own personal gain, and those who would usurp the President. It’s bound to happen, especially in a game of politics. When put up against House of Cards, however, the conspirators and the pseudo-anarchists take on the role of the villain, rather than pretty much everyone in Congress. Greed and personal gain are clearly portrayed as negative attributes in The West Wing, rather than the standard of the times. Clearly, idealism reigns supreme.

Even though the show stretched and continued racking in Emmy nominations until 2005, The West Wing was originally penned in a idealistic world and despite changing political climates, a terrorist attack, and an invasion of a sovereign nation, the writers of The West Wing tried their best to uphold that view of the Presidency, even if the majority of Americans no longer shared their ideals.

Interestingly enough, the premiere episode of the third season of The West Wing, titled “Isaac and Ishmael”, aired on October 3, 2001, not even a month after 9/11. Instead of dealing with the immense panic of the day, the pure tragedy of it all, The West Wing stayed small, which was probably necessary at the time. The episode consists of the staff in the White House, on September 11, 2001, after they’ve gotten the news from New York and the building has been locked down. The aids and staff find themselves trapped with a high school tour group and instead of focusing on the tragedy, each staff member spends their spotlight moment telling these kids what America is supposed to be and all that it means to them.

The episode, story-wise, is almost irrelevant and does nothing for the overall season plot. It was written, produced, and filmed in under a month, because a show such as The West Wing needs to address such an event as 9/11. As such, it’s mostly shot in one location and, for the avid viewer who was expecting an insider’s look on the politics of that day, it did not live up to the expectations established on the show. Arguably, however, “Isaac and Ishmael” offered exactly what America needed to heal from such a traumatic event: inspired patriotism, renewed mission, and sworn loyalty to everything the American ideal is supposed to represent.

It’s fair to say that, twelve years after “Isaac and Ishmael”, sentiments regarding American idealism have pretty much gone down the toilet. House of Cards pens an entirely different story than The West Wing, and when compared side-by-side, one would hardly believe the two take place in the same country a little more than a decade apart. Frankly, the differences are jaw-dropping.

As discussed in the House of Cards review, this Netflix drama offers no moral character to follow, no political agenda to get behind that’s not already tainted by greed and lust for power. House of Cards is out to make a statement about the current political climate all on its own: It doesn’t want you to root for anyone because they’re all horrible and absolutely no one is a shrug-your-shoulders-and-live-with-it, lesser-of-two-evils type.

In House of Cards, everyone in Washington has punched in their ticket with the devil and wears a pretty face only to get the American people on their side. There’s no redemption, there’s no hope of a better tomorrow. Even in the headlines, there’s no more respect of the President’s office than one would be required to have of a sanitation worker.

There’s no one to stand up, after the greatest tragedy this nation has ever faced, and say why they’ll be loyal to the American flag and all it represents, no matter the cost, and until their dying breath.

Now, loyalty is just another bargaining chip and everyone has their price.

My, how far we’ve fallen.

About the Author
Carly Twehous is a screenwriting alumna from JPCatholic (’17) who possesses a slightly inordinate love of both chocolate and comic books. In what little free time she has, she makes use of it by time traveling, ghost busting, and furiously scouring the globe for potential alien activity.