Of all the ground broken by House of Cards, Netflix's glossy new bid to change scripted television forever, the most earth-shaking development may be its depiction of a Congress that can pass legislation.
Kevin Spacey, as House Majority whip Francis Underwood, controls the levers of power like the strings of marionettes, turning the world's most powerful deliberative body into his own personal puppet show, with the impact on national and international policy just incidental plot points. At the New York City premiere of House of Cards on Wednesday, Spacey detailed the research he did on the real Capitol Hill, including meetings he had with congressional leaders so that he could better understand how to rule over his fictional political kingdom.
Needless to say, he wasn't all that impressed with the work -- or at least its outcomes -- that he saw being done in Washington.
"Steny Hoyer is the minority whip on the Democratic side, and Kevin McCarthy is the majority whip on the Republican side, and they were very generous with their time. They kind of allowed me to tag along," Spacey told The Hollywood Reporter. "I was really sort of trying to understand the specific process of what it might be like to have to corral 218 congressmen to vote your way. And as we’ve seen over the last year, with the most ineffective Congress, least productive Congress in the history of the United States -- which is pathetic and very sad -- it’s not easy to corral 218 congressmen to do what you want."
Spacey's Underwood, however, is ruthlessly efficient in getting his way, especially once he surrenders all pretense of honest intent. He schemes and double crosses, pulling in supposed allies with his disarming southern drawl, before stabbing them in the back, smiling all the while. The representative from the fifth district of South Carolina takes down members of his own party -- he is ostensibly a Democrat, but once he is passed over for the Secretary of State position by the president he helped elect, the little letter next to his name is largely irrelevant.
"Our show doesn’t come with a political agenda," executive producer and showrunner Beau Willimon told THR. "In fact, at the center of it is someone who is non-ideological by nature. He seeks power for power’s sake, that’s his sole aim and interest. To the extent that he has to tap into one ideology or another along the way, that’s really to serve his interest. To the degree that they serve ours is icing on the cake."
One of Underwood's pawns is Congressman Russo, a lightweight, party-happy representative from Philadelphia more concerned with stimulating his senses than the economy. Played by Corey Stoll, he becomes indebted to Underwood after he bails him out of a DUI, a screw up made worse by the prostitute in his passenger seat. "There’s a lot of sort of drunk, womanizing congressmen, so you can take your pick," he cracked, when asked which philandering politico inspired his performance. "There are little bits and pieces of the obvious, the [Bill] Clintons and [Anthony] Weiners," he added, though said his character was certainly his own special brand of ethics nightmare.
Unlike Spacey, Stoll said that he actually came away from the experience of meeting with congressmen and filming the show with a better appreciation for politicos -- or, at least, the impact Washington has on their lives.
"I think I found myself with a lot more empathy," he admitted. "A lot of Americans now are pretty fed up and see it all as very corrupt. I think the more you put yourself in these peoples’ shoes, the pressures coming from every angle are incredible, and how you’re able to keep whatever idealism you had when you first decided to run for office, people who can do that are pretty superhuman."
The new presidential administration is depicted as entering the White House with that honest idealism, the ambition to make the same sort of moderate-liberal change that has been the hallmark of President Barack Obama's agenda. The administration's decision to renege on its promise of State Department power to Underwood was made with the belief that he was more effective in congress, shepherding White House legislation through the House of Representatives.
Underwood fakes a smile and pledges his loyalty to the White House Chief of Staff, his former assistant whom he helped land that job, but immediately sets out on the war path. It sets up a long battle with his former protege, played by Sakina Jaffrey.
"People were asking me in Washington what I had based the character on, and I had read of course Don Regan -- he had a funny thing where he would literally have to color code different events and consult Nancy Reagan on what her horoscope guy said Reagan could speak," she said with a laugh, shaking her head at the idea of astrology governing a nation.
"I looked up what Condelezza Rice did in office, and I looked at Valerie Jarrett," she continued, pointing to advisers for both George W. Bush and Obama. "Also Stephanie Cutter. I don’t know if you watched her, but she’s hilarious. When Obama kind of bombed after that debate, she had a ferocity to her, and the shit had hit the fan, and she was a little hysterical, and I think the first two episodes of the show, I borrowed it from her."
The show, which premieres all 13 of its first season episodes on Netflix on Friday, is sure to cause some buzz in the capital; it already was featured at a screening in Washington on Tuesday night, and Hill publications such as Politico have already given it some coverage. Spacey, for one, hopes that their fictional Congress can send a message to the real one.
"I think what this series will explore is how effective Francis Underwood is as the majority whip," the Oscar-winner, who has lived in London the last ten years, offered. "Does he get stuff done? And I hope people will see that he does. Maybe Congress will be inspired."
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin