A Brief Briefing
The show follows Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the House Majority Whip from S.C., in his desperate and conniving quest for power in the nation’s capital. In the initial episode, Underwood comes off as a good ol’ southern boy with a crooked political savvy. His narrative asides (very “Zach-Morris-esque”, if I do say so) reveal a bit of what is happening inside his very politically-driven head, and our privileged access to his private machinations encourage us to latch onto Underwood as the hero of the story.
However, his plans for ascendancy are foiled unexpectedly, and we quickly realize more lurks beneath that Southern drawl than meets the eye. As we take the plunge into a filthy, back-handed political climate, we are given a front row seat in a destructive rampage of calculated and devious politics–complete with hookers, narcotics, affairs, lies, betrayal, and blackmail.
Underwood and His Mrs. (and Mistress)
My wife pointed out from the start that the show reminded her of Macbeth. Underwood and his wife are more political partners than lovers. The two work in collusion for mutual advantage. His intense love for his wife is grounded in her ruthlessness and undying devotion to him: “I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood.” She loves him because he has lofted her into the heights of power and prestige, keeping her from a quiet boring life of house-wifery and children.
In one of the early episodes of Season 1, Frank comes home early in the morning from a one-night stand with a reporter. As viewers wait on pins and needles to hear what lie Frank will tell his wife to cover up the affair, his wife asks him point blank: “Was it the reporter?” Frank replies, “Yes.” “Is this the last time?” Frank responds dead pan: “Not sure.” Mrs. Underwood asks, “What can she do for us?”
I admit my stomach turned during this interchange.
Frank’s lack of guilt and his wife’s lack of outrage are startling. Early on in the series we learn that sex in the Underwood marriage is about power. They don’t have an open marriage to allow for sexual exploration or emotional outlets; their open marriage is about using their sexuality to gain an advantage over others.
“Flee Sexual Immorality”
In one of his narrative asides. Underwood explains, “Everything in the world is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.”
This statement is more than true in House of Cards. From the start of Episode 1, viewers are assaulted with sexual images, dialogue, and audio. I probably spent a good seven minutes of every episode with my face hidden in a pillow until my wife told me the coast was clear. After the first couple of episodes, my hope was that the writers would get the graphic stuff out of their system. It didn’t happen.
The final nail in the coffin for me and my wife came in Season 1, Episode 7. It ends with an extremely graphic scene in which Zoe, a young reporter, is on the phone with her father wishing him a happy Father’s Day while trying to stifle moans as she and Frank are intimately involved. Of course, I didn’t watch the scene, but I heard way more than an earful of pornography-level audio. Enough for me and my wife to say, “Enough is enough.”
It shouldn’t have taken seven episodes for us to come to this conclusion. I struggle to find anything of redeeming value in the plot or characters. Yes, the plot is interesting, to an extent. However, there is not one upstanding character in the whole bunch. Everyone drops F-bombs like it ain’t no thang. Everyone is willing to get in bed (figuratively or literally) with whomever it takes to get ahead. Everyone is corrupt. The few idealistic politicians that appear are mere buffoons whom Underwood quickly quashes like a political steamroller.
I am not saying Christians shouldn’t watch movies or shows with foul language, reprehensible characters, etc. Taken alone, swearing can be managed. Taken alone, some drug use might be tolerated. Taken alone, deception can be managed. Taken alone, some sexual content can be skipped or censored. However, House of Cards has such an intoxicating mix of drug-usage, harsh language, sexually explicit content, and depravity that it leaves you feeling completely demoralized and filthy.
Perhaps there is something redeemable about House of Cards. In my mind, I don’t think it is worth wading through the sludge to find it. I agree that it is well produced, especially since it is Netflix Original Series, and the actors play their roles exceptionally well. It is not necessarily even the story that bothers me. It is the way the story is told. The show has no restraint. Corruption, sexual exploits, drug usage, etc.—these things can be artfully portrayed without having to be visually explicit.
Some might argue that House of Cards exposes human depravity. Sin is sinful, wicked, dark, depressing, and complex. I agree. However, there are ways to depict sin and depravity without encouraging viewers to delight in it. The line between objective observation and voyeurism is very thin in the entertainment world. In House of Cards, we’re not dealing with a blurred line, but a line that has been sufficiently covered with a dump-truck’s worth of garbage.
I don’t think watching House of Cards has helped me to better understand the human condition, God, or good art. You might protest that I am asking too much of something that was intended for entertainment. Would I also argue that it’s wrong to watch an episode of Seinfeld if it doesn’t communicate truth about God or the human condition? No. But then again, Seinfeld is not a constant barrage of language, drug use, and sex. The level of explicit content in House of Cards requires quite a level of artistry and redeemable elements to justify watching it. In my opinion, it’s just not there.
Perhaps you can convince me otherwise. This is obviously an area of Christian wisdom, and I would love to hear from those who disagree.
(P.S.–My wife’s succinct and hilarious summary of the show: “Warning: Nudity and complete ickiness make this unsuitable for everyone.”)