When Netflix dropped the first teaser for season five of “House of Cards” on the same day as Donald Trump’s inauguration, media outlets had a bonanza over the eerie image of a tattered, reversed American flag fluttering before the U.S. Capitol.
To many, it mimicked their feelings of political dystopia: the erosion of our shared values and the further decline of American Empire. And it joined a long line of marketing campaigns depicting national ruin to capitalize on our insecurities toward the future (Amazon literally decked out Manhattan subway cars in faux Nazi propaganda to promote the post-World War II “what-if” drama-series “The Man in the High Castle”).
Given the brutal rhetoric from this past election campaign (“The American Dream is dead,” asserted Trump when he first announced his candidacy), the almost universal distrust toward government among Americans that found a voice through Trump and Sanders, and the fact that both Clinton and Trump were the two most widely disliked presidential candidates of all time, the promo struck a chord with its dark imagery.
Which is why it’s telling about where we are as a society when not even “House of Cards” can capture the madness of the American electorate. Though there are exciting bits, like the first two episodes commenting on the rhetoric surrounding terrorism, and a later wilderness retreat in backwoods Ohio featuring the world’s most powerful billionaires in vein of the Illuminati, this season of “House of Cards” is mostly marred by a terrorist manhunt that feels like a “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” special coupled with an excruciatingly dull election pitting a PTSD-suffering Republican governor against an ultra-Machiavellian southern Democrat willing to impose martial law to win an election.
Compared to the real-life bloodbath of this past horse race, marred by cyber-warfare, FBI investigations and rape accusations hurled by both sides, this narrative feels tame. The dramatic twists that made the show so exciting during the first few seasons are fewer and less shocking to an audience desensitized to campaign spectacle and corruption on Capitol Hill.
“House of Cards” has always been a soap opera dressed as a D.C. thriller. In this season, the writers abandon having Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright obliterate their enemies as Team Underwood to focus on showing the duo struggling to hold power. It’s a nice twist, but overwrought with too many new one-dimensional characters engaged in insider politics.
And let’s face it: a fictional media-savvy political consultant played deadpan by Campbell Scott is uninspired compared to the current media mogul aiding the president who once said “darkness is good” before evoking images of Darth Vader and Satan in a feature for Time magazine.
The current nature of American politics is far crazier than any Beltway fiction former Clinton staffer turned show-runner Beau Willimon is able to conjure. Our politicians no longer undermine one another in subtle debates on policy; they call each other losers and body-slam reporters. Meanwhile, elections are decided by hacked dick picks, partisan conspiracies and FBI investigations.
In an era of fake news and massive party polarization, reality has become more exciting, and more terrifying, than entertainment. Not even Netflix juggernaut “House of Cards” can top the sucker-punches from this past election cycle, let alone keep up with the media frenzy surrounding the current administration.
As it turns out, the most unrealistic thing about “House of Cards” is how normal its politics seem in the age of Trump.
Davis Richardson is a writer whose work has appeared in VICE, Nylon Magazine, The Daily Caller and WIRED. Follow him on Twitter