On the surface, Scandal and House of Cards have a lot in common.
Both are hour(ish)-long shows set in Washington D.C. that feature deception, political back-stabbing, murder, rape, extra-marital affairs and lots of White House visits. But the commonalities pretty much stop there. Both are enjoyable shows, but House of Cards is like the brooding, slightly more complex teenage sibling to Scandal’s cuter, adolescent charms. And no, this is not a case of the white man’s ice being colder.
Enjoying House of Cards doesn’t make one smarter or more refined than the average Scandal watcher. It’s just a different cup of tea.
Scandal’s main character Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is a very successful, superbly stylish, pouty-lipped “fixer” in D.C. who runs around helping the morally bankrupt Washington elite get their lives back on track. Olivia is pretty terrible at managing her romantic life and her mommy/daddy issues are epic, but for the most part, her clients are better off once she works her magic.
Viewers get the impression that Olivia is a good person at heart who happens to employ dirty tactics at times and sleeps with the married president. A big part of how the Scandal lure is that viewers feel mostly sympathy, but sometimes disgust with Olivia’s behavior.
House of Cards’ Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is pretty much Oliva’s opposite. There is no moral hand wringing going on with Frank. He has no morals. His sole purpose is to gain as much power and influence as possible and he has no regard for the causalities he leaves in his wake. The man is ruthless and it is downright thrilling to watch. He’s always 10 steps ahead of his prey, but not everyone is some doe-eyed newbie, so the draw is watching Frank adapt and plot and seek out the weakest points in people to exploit.
The Main Couple
Frank and his wife Claire are perfect for each other. There is no doubt about that. You might believe that they are both the devil’s helpers due to their laundry list of dastardly deeds, but their bond is undeniable. Frank has a rock at home. They are aware of each other’s extra-marital affairs, they expect them for different reasons and they seem to hold each other in high esteem. If nothing else, they take care of one another. You might not like them, but you like them together.
For Olivia on Scandal, her love life is a mess because she has this lusty affair going on with the president (who is a complete jerk, by the way), but she also has a feeling or two for the president’s former bestie. Viewers are supposed to feel torn about Olivia’s love life because she and the married president have awesome sex and their “one minute” moments, but…eh.
The second season of House of Cards is pretty much a primer on how Congress works. There’s so much minutiae there, but it’s interesting and it makes sense for the plot. Additionally, there are some fairly sophisticated storylines about international trade and the often dubious relationships between big corporations and politicians.
It’s not overloaded with the guts of “war room” strategy, but there’s enough there that you feel like you need to keep up. You can’t turn your brain off and just watch the show.
Scandal on the other hand, never delves too deep into politics. Elections, affairs, a murder or three, a secret spy unit—that’s about it.
Scandal’s “boy” scene starring Joe Morton as Eli Pope was magnificent. Truly. It was nuanced, layered and well-acted. It was also very different than most of the scenes on the show. Scandal’s characters speak to each other in a snappy, really fast, straight to the point, no-filter dialogue. The conversations they have with each other are not ones that most human beings have, but it makes for compelling television and there are lots of social-media-friendly quotes.
House of Cards also has some zippy dialogue on occasion (though Frank pretty much sticks with his smooth-as-honey southern drawl), but the acting is just as big of a draw for the show as the writing and plot lines. Also, Frank talks to the camera in every episode and he drops real jewels sometimes. “Proximity to power deludes some into thinking they wield it,” Frank said in season one. Brilliant. There are some genuine life nuggets in House of Cards about human nature and life.
All in all, Scandal and House of Cards have their own particular charms and one thing both shows can agree on, it is that D.C. is a cesspool of corruption. If I had to pick one to watch over the other, it would definitely be House of Cards, though.
Do you watch both shows? Which one is your favorite?