Spoiler alert: This post contains information about the first season of House of Cards, which recently debuted on Netflix. If you’ve seen the first five episodes, you’re OK to proceed.
There’s a lot to love about House of Cards, Netflix’s attempt to bring high-quality television directly to the web. As you’ve probably heard, the series is set in modern-day Washington D.C. with Kevin Spacey at its center, playing the scheming House Majority Whip Frank Underwood.
Spacey’s always a delight to watch when he’s in predator mode. Robin Wright, who plays his wife, does steely elegance better than all but a few actors. The writers take pleasure in pouring on a thick layer of cheese over the dialogue—”I love that woman. I love her more than a shark loves blood.” And it’s simply fun to watch politicians play soap opera anti-heroes: House of Cards is a show built for those of us who always knew that West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin is a pedantic scold.
One problem: The show gets its Philly politics all wrong.
Key to Frank’s machinations, it seems, is Peter Russo—a flawed-but-promising rookie congressman from Philadelphia. For much of the season so far (I’m a bit over halfway through) Russo’s flaws have been doozies, promising to undo him: He’s a womanizer and an addict, a man who can barely stay sober during a committee hearing, to say nothing of the times he spends cavorting around town. This catches up with him: Russo is arrested for DWI and Frank makes it go away.
Later, of course, Frank uses his knowledge of Russo’s substance abuse and sleeping around, and demands repayment. In order to facilitate one of his plans, Frank orders Russo to take a dive on an issue near and dear to him—Russo is to cease his opposition to the closure of the shipyards in Philly, and to let 12,000 people lose their jobs as a result. And Russo complies, sitting mutely before the Base Realignment and Closing Commission as it takes its final vote to close the base.
Never would’ve happened, why?
• Philadelphia politicians can’t be blackmailed over such piddly stuff. Let’s put it this way: Philadelphia re-elected John Street after it was discovered during the election the FBI had bugged his office for a corruption investigation. Ed Rendell was still in the governor’s mansion when he sat down for photos and article with this magazine about his “not a girlfriend” while still married. We’re going to punish a politician for promiscuity and addiction? Hahahahahahahahah! Good one! A real-life Peter Russo would’ve spit in Underwood’s eye, told his constituents about the arrest, and then fought for the base. We don’t care about your personal stuff in this town as long as you’ll fight for us. Russo would’ve known that.
• The shipyards never would’ve been left to the handling of just one, rookie congressman: Philadelphia alone has five members of Congress, not to mention two senators, and a governor, none of whom would sit on their hands while Peter Russo looked the other way. (That’s not to mention officials of affected areas across the river in New Jersey and Delaware.) House of Cards depicts Russo as a bit of a free agent—responding to Underwood and sometimes his constituents, but otherwise seemingly operating in a vacuum. Which leads to a related third reason this never would’ve happened:
• Bob Brady never would’ve let it happen. Last month, The Fixer rebuilt the Manayunk bike race—an enormous undertaking—in just a few days. In the fictional universe, at least, he’d have no trouble keeping it together. And he’d be all over Russo, for that matter: In a contest between impressing Philadelphia’s chief power broker or Evil Kevin Spacey, which side do you think would win?
• It already happened. Just not like that: Yes, the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard closed back in the 1990s, but it didn’t go quietly: Some of it was repurposed as the Aker Philadelphia Shipyard, where commercial ships are built or rebuilt for extended use. Today, more than 10,000 people are employed in and around the old base—thanks largely to the persistence of state, local, and federal officials in working to attract development and jobs back to the property. Russo wouldn’t have been alone in losing the shipyard; but we also know that wouldn’t have been the end of the shipyard’s story.
I’m about halfway through season one of House of Cards; there are signs that Underwood is now grooming Russo to run for Pennsylvania governor. That seems unlikely, given Russo’s betrayal of the shipyard and its employees. But maybe his pretend constituents will figure out what we already know: There’s no chance Russo really would roll over for Frank Underwood in a situation involving 12,000 jobs. And if he did, there’s no way Philadelphia and the region would roll over for that. House of Cards has made a very rare Hollywood mistake: It imagines Philly as much less tough than it actually is.