The differences between the two shows are as obvious as a subway train to the face: Aaron Sorkin’s acclaimed drama depicted a feel-good version of government where a staff of intelligent, hard-working, musical-theater-quoting idealists orbited a president of great integrity as he made hard choices and worked tirelessly to make life better for his fellow citizens. House of Cards is the nightmare version of government, built from our worst assumptions of it, and anchored by an amoral schemer who does nothing with the authority he steals from more promising leaders.
The West Wing elucidated the responsibility behind power. House of Cards has always been about power for power’s sake. President Bartlet was a scripture-quoting progressive with lofty goals and a thousand pet projects. President Underwood has no grand governing principle or plan. He wants the largest cramped office in the world, and wants to hold onto it, because there is an emptiness inside of him too big to be filled.
The West Wing explored the labyrinthine reasons a human might stay unsatisfied with the highest achievement in the world, but House of Cards invites us to just ride the crazy train to see what horrifying places it might take us. It’s the rare DC-set series that has really nothing to do with politics. The government is a flimsy backdrop, the elected offices only costumes for the cynical and craven to strut the stage while hunting in ego-frying desperation for a spotlight. The presidency -- the very leadership of the free world -- is the show’s MacGuffin.
Governance was the whole point of The West Wing. We learned to love Leo, Josh, Toby, CJ, Sam, and President Bartlet while they were in the weeds of running the country. An FBI standoff in Idaho, a FEMA response to a hurricane bearing down on the East Coast, a nationwide strike by truck drivers, and a state dinner for the President of Indonesia are all plots in a single episode in its first season. Jed Bartlet is, without doubt, the most accomplished fictional president of all time.
Meanwhile, House of Cards spends the 13 hours of its now-streaming Season 5 on one plot engine. Each bloody chess move the Underwoods make, from challenging Conway's questionable military heroism, leveraging photo ops with the widow of a terrorist-killed American, making their own citizens scared to go to the polls, letting hackers into the NSA to cover their tracks, and an absolutely bonkers Hail Mary move on the day of the election itself, is an effort to maintain power.