Watching House of Cards over the weekend, one began to rack up a certain number of celebrity pundit sightings. Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes — all of them make some kind of appearance on the show. (A weird sideshow involving the former Times, now-Yahoo reporter Matt Bai probably falls into this category too, though he’s not a news anchor per se.) And I confess: I have always found such journalists-playing-themselves appearances well, odd, if not altogether objectionable. I know news anchors have done this since the dawn of time, that Christiane Amanpour was in Iron Man 2 and Brian Williams hung out on 30 Rock. And obviously, working where I work, it’s not that I’m a snot about pop culture, either. In fact, if anything, I think it would behoove most political journalists to get out of their Beltway bubbles more and make contact with the larger culture.
I think the way I find it surprising has to do with the particular reasons I’m a great fan of both Hayes and Maddow. (Hannity, no comment.) I have an image of them as interested in substance over style. If this has resulted in them not having the grand ratings successes of, say, your Glenn Becks and Bill O’Reillys, I’ve always thought of that as a kind of badge of honor. And the really ungenerous read here is that some people on Maddow’s and Hayes’ teams got starstruck when the request came in. Hollywood is super-cool and it’s fun to be hanging out with K-Pax and Jenny from Forrest Gump. But there is a level on which we’re all also supposed to be grown-ups who have more serious work to do, and the trademark of anchors like Maddow and Hayes is that they usually — with the occasional bout of humor, sure! — are focused on the serious work. So it’s jarring, if again not altogether upsetting, to see them on shows like this.
But, I also tell myself in counterpoint, there is a level on which there is a lot of silly-season stuff inherent in the job of anchor. And House of Cards, I’ve said repeatedly, is an intensely silly show. Like, silly dinner theatre stuff. Which, arguably, is an analogy to what’s going on in politics on a daily basis. And if you could read Maddow and Hayes doing funny guest-star bits on a show like this as a meta-comment on that fact, I’d respect it, I really would. I could see a gesture like that working on Veep, for example, which has the sort of self-aware vibe to pull off the suggestion that anchors are deliberately parodying their own role in the whole messy political process. But on House of Cards? Man, everything just seems so straightforwardly cynical that it’s hard not to have the same read on the thing right back. The only selling point is the glamor.