House of Cards v. Parks and Rec


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Bye-bye Lil’ Sebastian, and hello Mr. President.

Last week saw two epic television events: the series finale of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, and the season three premiere of Netflix’s House of Cards, including 13 new episodes ready to stream.

These two beloved series appear to have little in common, despite sharing top spots on my Netflix list. One is a droll comedy, the other a slick drama. One stars a giddy Amy Poehler, the other a sociopathic Kevin Spacey. What they share is a fantastical but important perspective on American politics, from City Hall to the White House.

Parks follows an island of misfit pencil-pushers in the fictional Pawnee, Indiana, who must solve such problems as catching Fairway Frank, the possum that lurks around the golf course; advocating for safe sex practices for the elderly; and filling an open pit into which Andy Dwyer (played by recently-minted A-lister Chris Pratt) can’t stop falling.

The Underwoods, on the other hand, have bigger fish to fry in the sometimes racy, sometimes violent, frequently confusing, and utterly engrossing Netflix drama, set in Washington, D.C. Frank Underwood’s daily challenges include whipping Congressional votes for a controversial new bill (occasionally using blackmail), mutilating—I mean, manipulating—journalists, and ruthlessly scaling the political ladder all the way to the Oval Office.

In short, Parks is idealistic and Cards is cynical. It’s like comparing a syrupy pile of chocolate chip waffles to a rack of bloody ribs.

But differences in tone aside, Frank Underwood and Leslie Knope have a few overlapping duties. Underwood begins the first season of House of Cards as the House Majority Whip, sponsoring bills condemned as too liberal by Republicans and not liberal enough by Democrats. Knope whips her own votes on the Pawnee City Council, fruitlessly trying to convince her colleagues, especially nemesis Jeremy Jamm, to approve even the most harmless policies, from a small soda tax (Pawnee ranks as the fourth most obese city in the country) to the addition of fluoride in the drinking water.

Both plots leave viewers with the same sour conclusion: the system is broken. Schmoozers and special interests—whether it be Raymond Tusk or Sweetums—control the government while bureaucrats with good intensions tend to go unnoticed and unthanked.

Through it all, Knope and Underwood’s biggest foes and allies are often you and me, the constituency, the friendly Iowa caucusers and the angry voices at a public forum. We bask in scandals but we love a good Harvest Festival; we throw our support behind a candidate with a good smile, but toss insults at capable candidates just because a TV pundit didn’t like her hair. It is the citizens of Pawnee and, well, America that benefit most from our protagonists’ efforts, and have the most to lose when their good ideas fail to come to fruition.

When Frank and Leslie do get publicly honored, it is having a library named after them, a gesture they both find hollow, albeit for different reasons. Each has his or her own reward in mind: Underwood, an infamous antihero, wants ultimate power; Knope simply to make the world a better place. I think most would find Knope the more ideal representative, but there is something novel and almost attractive about Underwood, a politician who values an endurable legacy over money and accolades.

And though Knope and Underwood are both Democrats, they break liberal stereotypes—Leslie, by teaming up with libertarian hunting enthusiast Ron Swanson, Frank by amassing allies on both sides of the aisle and pushing conservative policies such as welfare cuts and job creation.

It’s hard to discuss Frank and Leslie without bringing up Claire and Ben, their respective spouses. These couples demonstrate how two intelligent, ambitious people can maintain a relationship of mutual respect and even deep love, helping their counterpart reach his or her goals even if it means dropping everything and hitching up the campaign bus.

Ben’s face when Leslie is elected as a city councilor, when he flies back from Washington to propose to her, when he announces that she will be running for governor of Indiana—this look of pride and admiration is not unlike Frank’s as he watches Claire bravely admit her rape and abortion on national television, and when he decides to endorse her as ambassador to the United Nations.

Neither marriage is perfect—this is comically understated for those who have finished House of Cards season three—but their relationships are more complex than the average TV romance and they give new, intriguing meaning to the term “power couple.” (Barack and Michelle are so 2014.)

Together, Parks and Cards send an important message: Washington is full of corrupt, power-hungry bureaucrats in fancy suits, but that doesn’t mean there is no hope for the American political system. The country is punctuated with gumptious government employees working closely with their communities, not for good press, a hearty paycheck, or even a “thank you,” but because they care.

Washington, D.C. could use a few Leslie Knopes, Ron Swansons, Toms, Donnas, and even Jerrys to balance out the Francis Underwoods. But perhaps We the People could be a bit more like Frank—murder aside of course—and demand action and accountability from our elected officials.

I propose we should start by demanding JJ’s Diner and Freddy’s BBQ Joint franchises in town. Where else will we reminisce about that beautiful Parks and Rec finale, and take a break from a House of Cards binge?

The five best cameos from Parks and Recreation and House of Cards this season:
1. Joe and Jill Biden - as themselves, visiting with a starstruck Leslie Knope. (Parks, 7.12)
2. Pussy Riot - Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina as themselves, protesting the Russian president's White House visit. (Cards, 3.3)
3. Bill Murray - as Mayor Gunderson at his own funeral. (Parks, 7.11)
4. Stephen Colbert - as his Colbert Report character, interviewing President Underwood. (Cards, 3.1)
5. Madeleine Albright - as herself, giving Leslie sage advice over a plate of waffles at a D.C. diner. (Parks, 7.8)

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