I'm not saying it's a bad show; quite to the contrary, and that's part of the problem. It's well-written and well-acted, mostly, though it could do without the fourth-wall breaking monologues. But we enjoy it when we watch it. And it's that enjoyment that leads us to buy into the working and middle-class' irrelevance in politics today.
It's not entirely realistic, since Frank Underwood does things that no one could actually do, such as somehow counting on the entire opposing Republican minority of the House plus the Congressional Black Caucus to support a Speaker of the House coup just so he can get an educational bill on the floor. But I've never placed a huge emphasis on "realism" in storytelling, and it's plenty believable enough to allow me to suspend my disbelief.
So why does the show make me sick when I watch it?
Frank Underwood is a classic contemporary cable anti-hero; he's certainly no worse a person than Tony Soprano, Don Draper or Walter White, all of whose shows I enjoy. I was happy to watch the SAMCRO gang in Sons of Anarchy use a California community as their shooting gallery. So what's the difference?
I think the scene that pushed me to where I couldn't watch the show anymore was when Underwood threw a party for his wife (sorry, it's too late at night for me to look up the names of everyone I can't remember) in front of a hotel that had canceled his reservation because of union trouble.
The teacher's unions are furious because Underwood blatantly lied to them in negotiations about the education bill then turned around and tried to take away their right to collectively bargain (1), as well as increase support for charter schools and performance evaluations based on tests. Frank's wife was having a charity ball at a hotel and the union there supported the teachers and made the hotel cancel the reservation. Frank illegally hosts the ball in the hotel's front courtyard, and gets away with it since the police commissioner's invited.
Desperate, the teacher union guy throws together a protest. For some reason he can't get real teachers to protest, but he is able to get a bunch of teamsters (2).
The sexy rich and powerful people at the charity ball ignore the protesters for awhile. Zoe, the smokin'-hot blogger that Frank is banging, asks them a few pointless questions for a moment before she decides to go inside the party where all the interesting people are.
And then Underwood and his wife come outside with ribs from his favorite inner-city barbecue place and a keg of beer and hands it out to the teamsters, all of whom immediately cheer him and disperse. The teacher's union is defeated and looks like idiots, and Frank has his victory.
I know that the show is just a portrait of Washington's corruption. I know Frank is not supposed to represent the way things ought to be, but the way they are. But it's also asking us to buy into it a certain degree, and laugh at the way that people like Frank Underwood are pulling the strings of everyone around him.
Watching the show I'm reminded a bit of the West Wing; like that show it shares the attitude that the people in the halls of power are the only ones that really know how to do anything and everyone else is just deluded and dupes, none more than the downtrodden who try to fight for their rights. But at least TWW had some ideals the characters aspired to, even if they were Aaron Sorkin's twisted centrist bullshit.
So yeah, Tony Soprano twisted and screwed people over, Walter White twisted and screwed people over, and Frank Underwood twists and screws people over. The difference is that I follow politics a lot, and I know that the kind of person Underwood represents is not too different in reality. And the people he is screwing over is us.
The middle and working class, who can be bought off with a keg of beer and some tasty ribs, that is you and me. And I know damn well that the people who work in Washington mostly do see us that way. But I fear that by laughing along with it, we're accepting that. Over the last thirty years the middle and working class has entirely given up that we can make any difference in the way our country is run. And the only people that are mad enough to even try to do anything (like the Tea Party) tend to be mad at entirely the wrong people.
Am I saying you should stop watching it? I don't know. All I know is that I can't watch it anymore. There was a time when people made shows where working and middle-class people fought against those in power and won. Maybe we're too cynical to accept that anymore. Maybe that's entirely the problem.
1 I'm not even sure how the US Department of Education could do that, but it's beside the point.
2 Honestly I wish modern unions had a fraction of the unity they display here