This week Jim Kelly and Margaret Carlson are corresponding about Washington's moment on the small screen. Kelly is the former editor of Time magazine (and of Carlson) and is now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.
Margaret: I just finished Episode No. 4, and "House of Cards" has already jumped the shark. I'll tolerate a lot from Kevin Spacey, but he's testing me with a poor plot twist and repeatedly breaking the fourth wall to tell us what he's really feeling,
Spoiler alert (although most people are ahead of me): A teenager is distracted by a provocatively shaped water tower. She texts her boyfriend about it, runs off the road and dies.
The tower is part of a pet project of Spacey's character, Frank Underwood, and his political enemies see an opening to smear him for the death of a young girl. So far, so outlandish. We have much better scandals than this in real-life Washington. Just recently there was a Mormon senator from Idaho arrested for drunk driving. Despite the obvious hypocrisy, it faded in a day. It takes a lot more than that to rock our world.
Jim: Speaking of jumping the shark, did you ever see the Spacey in "Swimming with Sharks"? He plays a movie bigwig named Buddy Ackerman, and abuses his assistant beyond even what Lyndon Johnson did to Walter Jenkins.
You may have noticed I've changed the subject. That's because I am terrified of being accused of writing spoilers, like you just did. I have a friend who tweeted about the death of a major character in "Downton Abbey" last week right after the episode aired, and he himself got whacked by those who had been taping the show to watch after the Super Bowl. I would have thought there was little overlap between the admiration societies for Ray Lewis and Lady Mary, but I guess not.
Margaret: Well, if your friend tweeted that death out of the blue, he deserved to get whacked. Here, at least, readers know what we are talking about. So let me finish the spoiler. Underwood drops everything to go home to his district. His first attempt to neutralize the parents of the girl fails, so he gets the minister to let him come to the Sunday service and deliver the homily at which the bereaved parents will be front and center. It sets Underwood up to chew the scenery with an Elmer Gantry stemwinder.
Then Spacey turns to the camera and tells us he doesn't mean a word of what he's just said. Thanks, we get that: You're a great actor. Stop hitting us over the head about it.
Jim: Actually, I love it when Spacey speaks directly to us. I wish everyone in Washington did that. Imagine if John Brennan had done it during his Senate hearings on his nomination to be CIA chief. He could have turned to the camera and said: "Some people did not like our interrogation methods because they deemed them too cruel. We solved that dilemma by skipping the questions and killing bad guys directly with drone attacks. Now we are getting criticized for that. It's not like we tweeted a death in 'Downton Abbey'."
Margaret: A technical problem watching "House of Cards" (available, as all the advertising is careful to note, only on Netflix) drove me back to broadcast TV. When I'm folding laundry, I allow myself to go downmarket, TV-wise. Catching up with "1600 Penn," where the hapless first son burnt down his fraternity house in the first episode, I found that the first daughter is pregnant by a Gap clerk she barely knows while the first lady is panicked because the White House china is broken and the Australian head of state is coming to dinner.
Somebody had to take the low road in Washington. (On TV, I mean. No shortage of people taking it in real life.) Why not NBC, as it struggles to replace "30 Rock"? The White House even tried to help out, holding a private screening. Jon Lovett, a former White House speechwriter, is one of the creators.
Lovett wrote much of Barack Obama's humor for the White House Correspondents' Association dinner and other peculiar rites where the president is expected to be funny. I'm surprised Lovett is so unfunny here. There's a running joke, told louder and louder, about the local mall (the one where the prospective first son-in-law works) and the National Mall (where Lincoln sits).
It was a relief to get back to "House of Cards," where Underwood proves himself a master of the game by the end of his visit home. In case you aren't there yet, I'll wait to tell you why I love it.
Jim: Oh, I'm way past Episode No. 4. I am at the part where a senator who happens also to be a Mormon bishop is arrested for drunk driving. His character is named Crapo, and must suffer the indignity of newspaper writers having to include a pronunciation guide in parentheses in every story (KRAY'-poh). Oh wait ...
Margaret: More indignity: His name's an anagram for "O, crap." Which must be what he thought when he was stopped on his way home from that Christmas party.
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Margaret Carlson at email@example.com