Why Everyone Is So Obsessed with 'House of Cards'

An expert explains the addiction to the popular Netflix series.

February 27, 2015, 9:40 AM
PHOTO: Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, left, and Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in Netflix's series "House of Cards."
Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, left, and Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in a scene from Netflix's series, "House of Cards."
Nathaniel E. Bell/Netflix/AP Photo

— -- TV fans have some binge watching to do this weekend. The 13-episode third season of Netflix original series "House of Cards" is now available to stream.

When a brief "glitch" teased the season earlier this month it put a 30-minute pause button on Washington - home to many of the show's obsessed fans.

So we started to wonder what it is about the show that has fans in such a tizzy. It turns out that Americans like fictional politicians a lot better than real ones.

ABC News spoke with Trevor Parry-Giles, a professor of political communication at the University of Maryland and director of academic affairs for the National Communication Association.

Parry-Giles said he's a big fan of "House of Cards," both the American and original British versions. He spoke with ABC News about why we just can't get enough of Frank and Claire Underwood.

So how did you get into this kind of research?

I was a double major in college, political science and communication. I was always interest in such matters and did my masters on an old show called LA Law. When The West Wing came out my wife and I, she also studies political communication, decided to do some work on it.

What do you like about the show?

I was a fan of the British version, there’s a whole book that its based on and when the British version debuted on PBS I devoured that because I had done my doctoral dissertation on British politics and the Thatcher regime. This down and dirty look at British politics was quite interesting and relevant.

The British version, you think Frank Underwood’s bad, Francis Urquhart is evil incarnate. He, like Underwood, rises his way up through the back benches to become the prime minister. There’s all sorts of parallels and interesting dynamics.

What is it about fictional presidents that you find interesting?

Often times our popular culture and fictional representations of politics mirror or reflect in some way messages and meanings about the actual political world.

The conventional wisdom about people like Frank Underwood is that he gets things done, that’s in response to a perception of the government as ineffective and unable to get things done. Historically since the Constitutional era we have always used politics as a literary device, there’s all of the ingredients of good drama, powerful characters, monumental decisions, much at stake. All the good characteristics of good entertainment in popular culture, it’s like a crime drama.

What does it say about our politics that House of Cards is so popular?

I don’t think it says anything particular unique about our own political culture, it does say something about American political culture because we've have both Utopian and Dystopian depictions that work in both directions as a commentary on our politics.

I, in the end, think that’s actually pretty healthy. If the system was completely dysfunctional popular culture couldn't get away with envisioning a totally Dystopian one.

You write about how "The West Wing" is a really romantic view of people who work in politics. What do you think of the contrast between that and the Dystopia in "House of Cards"?

That’s an interesting question, I don’t know if "House of Cards" is popular now because it speaks to some kind of lurking anxiety we have about our politics. My sense is that we also have other examples. There’s a show called Madam Secretary that’s entirely implausible but it’s romantic in that it's a young, attractive couple. It's sort of like West Wing in that they're always doing things like walking and talking in hallways.

You could read that and say maybe we’re longing for a Utopian vision of our foreign policy but I do think there is a sense that "House of Cards" is filling some kind of narrative need and actually kind of accessing something about how we see our political world.

There is some empirical evidence to support this. When "West Wing" was on television and very popular they did surveys that found reactions to government servants and officials had gone up during the period the show was on television. There was an uptick in law school applications when "LA Law" was on.

You also talk about how the president is usually a masculine figure in your research, typically a white man. How do newer shows stack up to that stereotype?

We've seen more people of color as president in popular culture certainly since the West Wing. We've seen more women in presidential roles. The president in State of Affairs is played by Alfre Woodard, who is both African American and a woman. You can read all of that sort of against the presence of the Hillary Clinton phenomenon or the Sarah Palin phenomenon. That may be an instance where the culture is actually reflective of what’s going on in the political world where the possibility of a woman president is more real than when The West Wing was on.

Obama also opened a lot of doors. There were a few African American presidents in popular culture prior to Obama of course, like Morgan Freeman in that bad asteroid movie Deep Impact. There have been women as well before Selina Meyer. I think the culture is moving the popular culture.

What's your take on Claire Underwood as a first lady?

I often think of her in contrast with the first lady as depicted in "Scandal." The "Scandal" depiction of the presidency is also interesting in that it has racial dynamics but the First Lady is implicated in all the aspects of the plot. Here where you had an Obama phenomenon in terms of presidents you might see a Hillary Clinton or even Michelle Obama phenomenon in terms of activism, that might be an Abbey Bartlet phenomenon as well, but The West Wing went to great lengths to remind us that she’s a woman.

What's your favorite depiction of a president?

Some grad students and I are working right now on a project on presidential impersonations, I love Paul Giamatti as John Adams in the HBO miniseries. In terms of popular culture I'm still locked into Josiah Bartlet.

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