RCL Exclusive

‘House of Cards’ Showrunners Elect to Avoid Trump References

Frank Underwood is portrayed as a very different president than Donald Trump.

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With Season 5 of Netflix’s House of Cards arriving Tuesday amid a real-life soap opera in the White House, the show’s newly minted show-runners are hitting the campaign trail with a message:

Don’t get too political about comparing President Frank Underwood to his real life counterpart, Donald Trump.

“They’re very different figures,” executive producer Melissa James Gibson, who shares show-running duties with Frank Pugliese, told RealClearLife. “Frank is a creature of the system. He came up through the system and he’s a product of it. Donald Trump is an outsider trying to blow the system up from the outside.

“They are not that alike.”

For a show that’s built off the charismatic performance of Kevin Spacey as a president who has no hesitation about manipulating the political system for his benefit, there have been social media observers on the left who are reading an extra layer into the show.

But Gibson and Pugliese stress that the season was completely written before last year’s election result, back when the polling virtually guaranteed a Hillary Clinton win. Ten of the season’s 13 episodes were already shot by November 8.

That doesn’t change the fact that some of the decisions made by Underwood and his First Lady (MacBeth) Claire, played by Robin Wright — whether flouting a Congressional hearing or an increasingly adversarial relationship with the press — have seemed eerily prescient.

“Some of the stuff that months and months ago Melissa and I were (mulling about) like, ‘Oh my God, could this possibly happen, or take this to some extreme place where it could happen,'” Pugliese told RCL. “And then what has been frightening about the actual election to see it happen in real life.

“There are so moments where I’ve got to say that we see what we shot or wrote months ago in real life and it’s chilling.”

House of Cards
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in Netflix’s ‘House of Cards,’ the fifth season of which drops Tuesday. (David Giesbrecht / Netflix)

One of the key themes on House of Cards this season is the Underwood’s manipulation of a terror attack to foment fear in voters as he undergoes a contentious election against challenger Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman). Surely, that’s a plot-line that could feel left-leaning to some viewers?

“For us, it seemed most interesting and subversive for that fear and terror to play out in the imaginations of the American people,” said Gibson. “That the battlefield is the American psyche.

“It’s a mantle we picked up from Season 4 (and previous show-runner Beau Willimon, who co-created the show), and had to pay off.”

It’s also interesting to note that Frank Underwood is a Democrat.

“If there’s anything that’s revealing about Francis being a Democrat, it’s how disposable and manipulative the rhetoric can be,” said Pugliese. “Both sides of the aisle are guilty of that sometimes. They’ll say what they need to say to hang on to power. And that’s what Francis does.”

Part of the cynicism in the writer’s room comes from the steady stream of political consultants that stream through to help ground the dramatic storylines in reality. Pugliese shared a great anecdote with RCL about a consultant (whose name he keeps classified) who told them that a Bridgegate scandal would break involving New Jersey Governor Chris Christie a month before it did.

The truth, though, is that real life developments on the Beltway happen too quickly for the writer’s room to keep up.

“I was just reading an article about the late night shows trying to keep up, they have to throw out scripts right before airtime,” said Gibson. “It’s incredible.”

“The first 20 days of the Trump presidency alone provided the amount of story in a TV season,” added Pugliese.

Watch the trailer for Season 5 of Netflix’s House of Cards, which co-stars Michael Kelly, Campbell Scott and Patricia Clarkson, below: