Is Washington a ‘House of Cards’?

Updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014

Story highlights

TV keeps inventing shows focused on workplaces we rarely get to see

S.E. Cupp says those who really work in places like CIA roll their eyes at some TV plots

She says Americans want a touch of realism, but mostly want escapism on TV

Editor’s Note: S.E. Cupp, a CNN political commentator, is the author of “Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity.” She is co-author of “Why You’re Wrong About the Right,” a columnist at the New York Daily News, a political commentator for Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, and a consultant to the HBO show “Newsroom.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN) —  

“It’s go time!” says a bespectacled Katherine Heigl, her bouncing, blond ponytail curled into a perfect coil.

The other night I forced myself to watch the newest iteration of Hollywood-Does-Washington, an NBC drama called “State of Affairs” that wants me to imagine Heigl as a CIA analyst responsible for the President’s daily national security briefings, and tasked with killing the terrorist who murdered her fiancé – who is also the President’s son – in a convoy attack in Kabul.

S.E. Cupp
S.E. Cupp

I’ve known many CIA analysts, and it’s hard for me to imagine any of them ever saying something like “It’s go time!” but then again, I’m not in the supersecret “situation rooms” where it’s quite possible that “It’s go time!” is the official CIA command for “do the thing we’ve been talking about doing.”

In fact, maybe “It’s go time!” came down from a CIA consultant who told the writers of “State of Affairs” that “It’s go time!” is what analysts really say.

This is why I am a terrible scripted television watcher. Unless it is agonizingly, uncomfortably close to reality (think the original British version of “The Office”), or the characters are so compellingly written (think “The West Wing”) or the stories are so absurd they’re impossible to overanalyze (think “Seinfeld”), I simply can’t get past all the bad dialogue, the unrealistic situations and the inhumanly charismatic characters.

So, the only thing I remember of “State of Affairs” was Heigl’s perfectly curled ponytail, “It’s go time!” and the fact that she was somehow allowed to roam the empty halls of the White House while the President was in residence without a single Secret Service agent in sight. (Actually, in today’s White House that might have been the only realistic element of the show.)

But these shows aren’t written for neurotics like me, clearly. They’re written for everyone else – people who have figured out how to enjoy television for what it is: entertainment.

And in some cases, bad television by anyone’s standards is now good television.

Take “Scandal,” for example, set in a D.C. crisis management firm, and in which the main character’s ongoing affair with the President is the least unbelievable plotline of the series. Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever called the show “deliciously dumb” and “laughably bad TV.” He wrote that “it eats your brain with a spoon.” But, “once in a while, it’s nice to have your brain eaten with a spoon.”


Workplace TV in the age of Mary Tyler Moore

Workplace television has changed a lot over the years. With some notable exceptions, it used to be a reflection of American culture as it stood in that moment. When America worked in small towns, we saw small-town stories mirrored back on “The Donna Reed Show” and “The Andy Griffith Show.”

When America was at war, we had war stories on “M*A*S*H.” When women started flooding the workplace, we got “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” And when urban sprawl moved America to big cities, we had countless shows about doctors and lawyers and ad executives in big cities.

But while we saw ourselves – or at the very least, people we knew – in all those programs, today’s workplace television shows seem to delight in taking us into some of the most clandestine offices in the world, from the White House to the Pentagon. Those are workplaces the vast majority of us will never set foot in.

Setting a television show in such rarefied environs is a double-edged sword for writers. On the one hand, it’s almost impossible to get the details right and the stories realistic, because access is limited and arcana is plentiful. On the other, only a handful of people will ever know the difference, and the vast majority will be none the wiser.

And bully for them. I was still trying to imagine what someone who actually worked as a CIA analyst thought of “State of Affairs” or “Homeland” or any other television show that tries to depict what they do.

’You will definitely get fired

My friend and colleague Buck Sexton, a former CIA analyst who now hosts a television program on TheBlaze, would always roll his eyes when we talked about “Homeland,” which I do enjoy, even if I wondered how plausible it was that a totally unhinged analyst like Carrie Mathison would get to keep her security clearance after sleeping with a target, defying her bosses and, generally speaking, losing her sh*t.

“No,” Buck tells me. “If you paper your walls with classified documents, you will definitely get fired. Maybe worse.”

Knowing what I know of Virginia farm boys (and girls), I doubt whether Hollywood could ever accurately capture life at Langley or the Pentagon, because real life is often too boring to be believable.

This reminded me of a Washington Post piece by Emily Wax-Thibodeaux, about the secret Starbucks inside CIA headquarters at Langley. There were wonderful, insidery details about the way the store had to operate in stealth. How, for instance, do you write a customer’s name on a cup when the customer can’t tell you his name?

But if “Homeland” showed Langley with a Starbucks inside it – a Starbucks that is real – it would look absurd. “Surely there isn’t a Starbucks at the CIA!” most viewers would guffaw.

It’s the banalities that make doing a workplace drama at the CIA difficult.

“There are many more acronyms used in the Intelligence Community. It’s almost its own language, but most of it would be too confusing for TV,” says Buck. “A true-to-life show about a CIA analyst would have action-packed fights over the grammar and syntax in policy papers, and the most dangerous scenes would involve the daily commute to Langley.”

When real life is an inconvenient detail

As a consultant on the Aaron Sorkin show “The Newsroom,” which peers inside another fairly unique and seldom-seen workplace, I’ve seen that real-life details are often inconvenient for Hollywood. That’s probably a good thing.

In a recent conversation with Sorkin about the flexible role of realism in these shows, we talked about what happens when fiction just sounds better than fact. Literally.

“As you know, ‘SOT’ means ‘Sound on Tape’ and it’s pronounced ‘sot,’” he said of a commonly used TV production term. “I don’t like the sound of that word, so when we hear it on ‘The Newsroom’ – ‘Ready SOT 32, 33, 33A’ – I have the actors pronounce it ‘S-O-T’ even though it’s wrong. For everyone except the handful of people who’ve worked in a control room it has the appearance of reality.”

And he’s right on both counts. I’m sure few outside television picked up on it, while nearly everyone I worked with couldn’t stop pointing out the hilarious but inconsequential “flaw” in the script.

Capturing the banalities has created a cottage industry of consultants who exist purely to make these clandestine settings seem real. (Sorkin first popularized this phenomenon when he hired folks like former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers to consult on “The West Wing.”)

Now, consultants like political writer Frank Rich on “Veep” and former Hillary Clinton campaign adviser Jay Carson on “House of Cards” make sure these shows feel authentic to casual observers and insiders alike.

Carson described to writer Marin Cogan the show’s obsessive attention to detail: “‘Doorknobs were redone because they were not right,’ and air conditioning grills were moved to be the same distance from the ceiling that they are in the Capitol.’”

But at the same time, writers set a pivotal scene in the first season of “House of Cards” at a fictional Metro stop called “Cathedral Heights,” maybe because it just sounded good. D.C. insiders noticed and tweeted their displeasure.

Sorkin recalled his own run-ins with location drama.

“My first movie was ‘A Few Good Men,’ and most of it takes place at the Washington Navy Yard. During location scouting we made the decision that the Washington Navy Yard didn’t look enough like the Washington Navy Yard and shot instead at a nearby psychiatric facility.”

Accuracy: Does it matter?

Taking creative license with such minor details may irk the folks who actually know the difference, but to the writers and the rest of the audience, accuracy matters only so much.

“I use consultants like you,” Sorkin says, “to learn about the reality, and then I choose what I want in order to create the appearance of reality. ‘House of Cards’ has consultants and so did ‘The West Wing’ and while I’m a huge fan of ‘House of Cards,’ they’re two very different shows. Which one gets it right? Neither and both.”

So if you’re a congressman on Capitol Hill, what makes for the better viewing experience?

I asked Rep. Paul Ryan, Rep. Adam Kinzinger and Rep. Aaron Schock if they liked any of the political shows based on, well, them.

“I tend to avoid the shows that focus on politics, just to get a break from it all,” says Ryan. “I tried watching the first couple episodes of ‘House of Cards,’ but I thought it was way over the top. Members of Congress aren’t anything like Frank Underwood. Most of us are far less interesting.” He prefers “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead.”

Schock doesn’t watch them either, though he did see the first episode of “House of Cards,” and plans to catch up on more over the holidays. He worries, though, that these shows promote the belief that Washington is shady and politics is a dirty business.

(Wait, it isn’t?)

“Most of my interns have commented after their time in my office that D.C. is a much more friendly and productive place than what they thought from TV and depictions of characters.” That’s true: the majority whip rarely has to kill someone himself.

Kinzinger likes “House of Cards,” and also says D.C. is a lot more functional than it’s depicted. “But we all like ‘Veep.’ Probably the most realistic.”

Around D.C., I’ve heard this a lot. It shouldn’t be surprising that a comedy most accurately portrays life on the Hill, or in the vice president’s office, a particularly funny environment where staffers are at once tasked to an incredibly important but often superfluous figurehead and must navigate those two dichotomies with diplomacy and savvy.

Rory Cooper, former communications director for Eric Cantor, agreed: “‘Veep’ is probably the most realistic show for staff, especially since laughing – usually at the expense of one another – is the best therapy for an exhausted staffer.”

But he, too, suffers from my affliction: an inability to suspend disbelief. “It’s always driven me nuts that Annette Bening got stuck in Dupont Circle while traveling from the Capitol to the White House in ‘The American President.’ Nobody would go that way!”

I’m sure, like “SOT,” Aaron Sorkin also made that decision consciously when he wrote the screenplay.

Wanted: Escapism, not reality

The American people seem to have a love-hate relationship with realism, or what pretentious people call “verisimilitude.” You can’t help but notice the rise in reality television over the past two decades and many in Hollywood have mourned it as the death of scripted television – which used to just be known as “television,” proving how ubiquitous reality has become.

And even scripted television has attempted to appear more realistic. Shows like “The Office,” “The Comeback,” “Parks and Recreation” and even “Veep” use techniques like handheld cameras (what pretentious people call cinéma vérité) to convey an intimacy and spontaneity that doesn’t really exist. That’s how much we like realism.

But at the same time, that’s too simple a reading. For one, many of the so-called reality television shows we all love to watch are in fact scripted.

For another, they are still undeniably escapist. More people work in offices today than they did 50 years ago – as a percentage of total U.S. employment, office and administrative support is the largest at just over 16%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – making shows about duck hunting, fixing cars and buying abandoned storage units more exotic and interesting than a workplace drama set in a law firm or insurance agency.

Maybe reality shows about so-called “dirty jobs,” blue-collar work like crabbing and construction, with main characters who are tattoo artists, hairstylists, baggage handlers and meter maids, aren’t just interesting because they’re “real” but also because they’re somewhat novel.

Either way, luckily for television writers, viewers like me who have a hard time escaping into the fictionalized workplace are rare.

“I think some people have more difficulty than others,” says Sorkin. “I know doctors who can’t watch hospital shows and lawyers who can’t watch legal dramas, but for the most part I think people appreciate that if the goal was to make it as real as possible then the result would end up looking a lot like a security camera tape.”

One thing that’s undeniable is that as 21st century Americans, we have gotten really, really good at watching television. So good, in fact, that we totally accept the truism that Sorkin lays out: “There’s a difference between reality and the appearance of reality.”

“People don’t live their lives in a series of scenes that form a dramatic narrative,” he says. “They don’t speak in dialogue, they’re not lit by a cinematographer or scored by a composer. The properties of real life and the properties of drama have almost nothing to do with each other. The difference between writing about reporters and being a reporter is the same as the difference between drawing a building and building a building.”

For Sorkin, whether a show gives reality, the appearance of reality or no reality at all isn’t always important.

“‘Murphy Brown’ is one of the best half-hours ever but its success didn’t depend on us really believing that ‘60 Minutes’ is done by five people sitting around a linoleum table by the elevator. Diane English wasn’t going for the appearance of reality. That was a comedy set – it had lots of doors. On the other hand, while I have no idea what an army hospital in the Korean War looked like, Larry Gelbart gave us the appearance of reality in ‘M*A*S*H.’”

Even a show about one of Sorkin’s own workplaces – he got his start as a struggling and ultimately successful playwright in New York – doesn’t have to be “real” for him to buy in.

“‘Smash’ didn’t in any way resemble the way a Broadway play gets done, but I didn’t trip over that.”

But occasionally, reality and the appearance of reality collide in ways that, well, can’t be scripted.

Firestorm of criticism

Just this weekend a new episode of Sorkin’s “The Newsroom” set off a firestorm of criticism for exploring the ways in which journalists cover college rape. Sound familiar?

Whether it was controversial on its own or because it so closely mirrors the Rolling Stone story of an alleged college rape at the University of Virginia, some critics are having a difficult time separating fact from fiction.

In the story line Sorkin wrote, a male producer thinks it’s unethical to allow an alleged rape victim to name her attackers on television before they’ve been charged. In her criticism of the episode, AV Club writer Libby Hill is so bothered by producer Don Keefer’s fictional decision, she transposes Sorkin and the character he created:

“Aaron Sorkin doesn’t understand who the victim is. He doesn’t understand how empathy works. And he, as a rich, powerful, white man in the United States, doesn’t understand that he is among the most privileged people in the world.”

That seems pretty unfair, but perhaps it’s the mark of a well-written storyline; Sorkin has so powerfully created the appearance of reality that the characters have become part of the news cycle itself.

But back to Katherine Heigl’s perfect ponytail and Carrie Mathison’s questionable judgment.

Tony Shaffer is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, whose book “Operation Dark Heart,” about his time in Afghanistan, was famously censored by the Defense Department. In many ways, he lived “Homeland.”

“I cannot watch things like ‘State of Affairs’ and ‘Homeland,’ because after having run real black and clandestine ops, the Hollywood representation is just too ridiculous.”

He says there’s more action in the real-world operations, but far less death. And he did like “24,” the Kiefer Sutherland drama that followed a single one-day incident over a season. But not for the reasons you’d think.

“It’s accurate only in that the biggest enemy Jack Bauer usually faces is on his own side: self-serving bureaucrats and politicians.”

Incidentally, Shaffer tells me he’s working on a new special ops show with a major cable TV network that he says “will be real and authentic.”

We’ll have to see if “real and authentic” can also make for good television, or if curled ponytails, “SOTs” and fake Metro stations are actually more important to the story than they seem.

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