Has House of Cards been well and truly Trumped?
In the fourth season of House of Cards, President Frank Underwood chose his wife as vice-presidential running mate while stretching the US constitution to breaking point by trying to derail an investigation into what newspapers called his “crooked path to the White House.”
Some viewers felt that, while enjoyable as TV drama, the scale of nepotism and corruption in the presidency of Kevin Spacey’s character was becoming politically unrealistic.
But that was last March, when the consensus, after the Super Tuesday primaries, was that Senator Ted Cruz would easily see off the maverick insurgency of Donald Trump to gain the Republican nomination and then, in all probability, lose the White House race to Hillary Clinton.
Now, the risk – when the fifth season is released on Netflix on Tuesday – is that the deranged chaos of the Underwood White House will seem tame in comparison to the Trump administration.
Speaking this week on the NBC show Late Night with Seth Meyers, Spacey acknowledged that the context of the show had changed. Referring to the way Underwood reached the Oval Office, the actor said: “What’s interesting is that there are people who watch the show … and thought, ‘Oh that’s crazy. That could never happen.’ And then suddenly 18 months later it’s like, ‘Oh, wait a second. That actually could happen.’ Or it is happening.”
Impressively prophetic? … the trailer for the forthcoming series seems to show the president cracking down on dissent and possibly democracy itself. Photograph: David Giesbrecht/Netflix
Netflix is protecting the content of the fifth season with a successful non-leak strategy that would be the envy of politicians everywhere. But the trailer for the forthcoming series seems to show the Underwoods winning the 2016 election on their joint ticket, as well as the president using physical violence against senators and other opponents in what appears to be a crackdown on dissent and possibly democracy itself.
Some of the hinted at storylines look impressively prophetic. Seeing protestors outside the White House holding signs that declare him unfit for office, Underwood has a Trumpian tantrum, raging: “The American people don’t know what’s good for them.” The trailer suggests a leader who will use any means to gain and maintain power.
This isn’t the first time the House of Cards franchise has got unnervingly close to real politics. The Netflix show is an Americanised expansion of a BBC series of the same name – adapted by Andrew Davies from the novel by Michael Dobbs – which began with Margaret Thatcher being forced out of power and replaced by Francis Urquhart, played by Ian Richardson. (The protagonists of both versions have the deliberately antagonistic initials FU.) The series first aired on 18 November 1990, four days after Thatcher resigned the premiership under pressure from cabinet colleagues.
But, though the Underwood-Trump blurring may prove an advantage to House of Cards, in another sense the new series has been overtaken by American political history before it begins. Last year’s increasing emphasis on the ambition of Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) to become president in succession to her husband seemed to be a clear preparation for season five to shadow and satirise the presumed Clinton presidency. (This year’s season of Homeland also lost a gamble on mirroring a female commander-in-chief.)
Will the new season of House of Cards work as a comically cathartic commentary on Trump – or seem dull next to the news? Photograph: David Giesbrecht/Netflix
Fictional and factual presidential cycles have not generally synchronised on US TV, though. Martin Sheen’s President Jed Bartlet in The West Wing (1999-2006) was a super-liberal super-intellectual, but the show’s last five seasons coincided with the incumbency of a commander-in-chief widely seen as an illiberal ignoramus, George W Bush. And the first four years of Netflix’s House of Cards ran the completely amoral Underwood – a liar and murderer with a multiply dysfunctional marriage – against the fiercely moral Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, one of the most admired first ladies in history.
The challenge for House of Cards now is whether its depiction of a preposterously exaggerated president will work as a comically cathartic commentary on Trump or may seem dull and understated in comparison to the nightly news bulletins. Perhaps the best thing that could happen to the show is for President Trump to watch it and tweet about how unrealistic the whole thing is.
House of Cards season five is on Netflix from 30 May.