everything you need to know about the difference between house of cards and the west wing, you can see in the opening credits

I will admit, it’s reductive to measure a show by the credit sequence that it begins with. But it’s not my fault that House of Cards and The West Wing can actually be meaningfully compared therein, even if you can’t completely encapsulate them in those few seconds.

With many shows, I feel like the opening credits are a quick look into how the producers would like you to think of the program, since it’s one of their few chances to deliver a context-free montage that is all about tone and nothing else. This was a problem for me with one particular program, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (which, like The West Wing, was a creation of Aaron Sorkin). I liked Studio 60 overall, but the few seconds that the title appeared onscreen were unnerving. Nothing about the show matched that sequence’s short burst of jazzy sax, coming on like a fragment of watered-down sleaze that had gotten lost on its way from a Vegas elevator to the world’s worst nightclub. (For the strong-stomached, you can see what I’m talking about below just after 3:40.)

In any event, the opening credits for House of Cards have the reverse problem: They establish the tone of the show all right, but better than the actual dramatic bits do. HoC‘s opening credits are a kind of Koyaanisqatsi thing that builds up a feeling of mystery and intensity. Time-lapse shots show D.C. whizzing by frantically, and the city becomes a kind of grand contraption in this view, its days speeding by much faster than any human scale could accommodate. Like Koyaanisqatsi, the end effect is to convey the the idea that we are all merely minor pieces of a much larger machination that is just using us for its own ends.

And the show seems to be about that, too, although it’s never as artful as its credits. House of Cards can easily be thought of as another Damages, but set in D.C.; our most important character, the congressman played by Kevin Spacey, is fundamentally a predator, much like Glenn Close’s Patty Hewes. If we like him and his apprentice, Kate Mara, it’s for their single-mindedness and Machiavellian invention. (Weirdly, these are qualities that people hate in real life, but love to watch on TV.) The show’s sense of forward movement — if nothing else, it’s a show with a plot — uses these characters as sexy, charismatic cogs in the city-as-machine metaphor of the opening sequence. We’re not getting into their skin or sharing their moments so much as we’re watching a big story with a lot of human parts making it go.

I’ve only seen six or seven episodes of House of Cards, but I’ve been consuming mass quantities of The West Wing recently. Comparing them is useful insofar as they cover very similar subject matter, a circumstance that shows the prejudices of both shows more clearly, even if you limit yourself to the blur of credits that kick them off.

To start off with, instead of House of Cards‘ minimalist dread and discord, the credits of The West Wing gives us stirring horns in a neoclassical style. As a sometime copy editor, I’m worried that “neoclassical” isn’t the right adjective, but damn if it doesn’t feel like it; what I mean is, the music roughly approximates the feeling you get listening to J.S. Bach, with a dash of patriotism somehow mixed in.

The video is pretty much the visual analog of that. The tinted portraits of White House staffers are faded a bit, as if they were already being memorialized. This is also the tone of the show, whose best and worst aspects are probably one and the same: The West Wing has a strong predilection toward making its characters noble and essentially decent far more than is statistically likely. This is a sentimental view of politics that can be very satisfying to watch on the one hand but also kind of contrived when you think about it much. The acme/nadir of this phenomenon is probably season 5, episode 17, when the (leftist) White House schemes to get a super-liberal onto the Supreme Court at the price of also appointing a reactionary, quickly described as an arch nemesis of the political left. The catch is that the reactionary, as it turns out, is a well-reasoned guy with good intentions and a sharp mind; it’s postulated that the interaction of the two judges will spur on the development of democracy with their intellectual vigor. The West Wing is a true believer.

If we can compare apples to oranges here, the winner is probably The West Wing. Politics is intrinsically significant, so reducing it to a melodramatic froth, as HoC surely does, seems kind of cheap, and from what I’ve caught, the show doesn’t actually engage political issues so much as use them as plot devices. As I write this and consider where HoC fails, it occurs to me that I’ve never given WW the credit it deserves for folding social issues into its stories in a way that was rarely as horribly issue-of-the-week as it might have been. (I’m looking at you, Law & Order.) In comparison, HoC doesn’t seem to care about the question of how to live in a civilized society so much as how spectacularly clever Kevin Spacey is.

And oy vey! the dialogue. The stuff people say in Cards is about as painfully literal as you can get, delivering concepts needed for exposition and no more, with a little observation thrown in to masquerade as insight. For that shallow-observation mode, check out the real-estate analogy at the very beginning of the above trailer, and for the worst of the merely functional writing, take for example this exchange (just after 0:45 in the video):

Robin Wright: I knew you shouldn’t trust that woman.

Kevin Spacey: I didn’t. I don’t. I don’t trust anyone.

Robin Wright: Then how could you not see this coming?

Uggh. To appreciate how often HoC sounds this flat, you’d have to see more of it, but I don’t recommend that. The West Wing may see politics through rose-colored glasses, but at least it’s fun to watch.

2 thoughts on “everything you need to know about the difference between house of cards and the west wing, you can see in the opening credits

  1. I’ve been looking through comparisons of these shows and yours is the most salient. Much of the other attempts to contrast these shows, especially as reflective of their respective political and cultural times, gets lost in meaningless, poorly conceived, mad mostly obvious reactions. Thank you for elucidating the nature of these shows through analysis of filmic elements. I believe it’s much more relevant.

    • Thanks! Nice praise. Now maybe I should do a comparison of opening credits with Game of Thrones if people aren’t sick of hearing about that show from me…(third post and counting).

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