Arts, Featured Column, Television, Column

The Conceited Bluff Of ‘House Of Cards’

After three years, House of Cards may have finally come tumbling down.

Yes, that metaphor is an obvious one, and maybe it’s not entirely fair to the popular Netflix drama, whose third season was released on Feb. 27. On the other hand, House of Cards deserves that obvious, hacky metaphor because its scripts are so full of them. The writers of House of Cards, chief among them showrunner Beau Willimon, don’t really trust their audience with ambiguity. They never introduce a theme or symbol without underlining it, twice and in boldface, before having Kevin Spacey repeat it to the camera once more to make sure we all understand.

In other words, House of Cards might be the least subtle show on television. At the outset, that was not such a bad thing: Spacey’s blunt, straight-to-the-camera monologues were a large part of the appeal, giving us a direct channel into Frank Underwood’s every thought and political calculation. But after three seasons, the formula has grown stale and the writing has taken a nosedive, revealing the show’s limitations more clearly than ever.

Take, for example, the concluding scene of episode four, which is for me an early frontrunner for worst television writing of 2015. Frank Underwood, now president after a Machiavellian ascent in the first two seasons, inexplicably pays a late night visit to his local cathedral to talk spirituality with the bishop. Underwood says he can understand the vengeful Old Testament God, but not why Jesus would sacrifice himself in a position of weakness. Out of love, replies the bishop, before leaving Underwood alone to privately berate the crucifix hanging over the altar. “Love. That’s what you’re selling? Well, I don’t buy it!” he sneers, spitting on Jesus’s face and then accidentally causing the crucifix to fall to the ground and shatter. As Underwood walks away, carrying a fragment of Jesus’ ear, he turns to the camera and deadpans, “Well, I’ve got God’s ear now.”

So many of the show’s faults are present in that one scene. It’s false to the character: Why would Frank Underwood ever seek private spiritual counsel? It’s simply implausible: Why would any president risk being seen defacing a crucifix? It’s filled with clumsy writing that tells us what the characters are thinking rather than dramatizing it. It’s a lame attempt to be edgy that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and that cringe-worthy last line just seals the deal.

Fortunately, this is the only scene that finds Frank Underwood screaming at God. Most of the season instead finds him screaming at underlings, and occasionally at his wife Claire (Robin Wright) as he tries to hold on to power in the White House. Season three marks a slight departure from its predecessors, since it’s a story of Frank exercising political power rather than clawing his way to the top. But the political storylines stretch the show’s plausibility to its breaking point. This is a show where a Democratic president tells the nation they are entitled to nothing and then dismantles the country’s social safety net, and where the White House hosts Pussy Riot at a state dinner with the Russian president.

Outside the political realm, the storylines are more grounded but less compelling. The season wastes precious time in tying up a loose end that should have been resolved last season, and resurrecting a second-rate romance between Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) and Chief of Staff Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali). A promising storyline involving a Republican challenger to Underwood is casually tossed aside, while the writers devote increasing attention to an ambling subplot about his biographer.

If there is a reason to keep watching House of Cards—and considering I binged 13 episodes in four days, I suppose there is—it is in seeing good actors do their best with mediocre material. Robin Wright continues to offer a master class in subtle underplaying, which is no small feat considering the heavy-handed writing. Elizabeth Marvel, who appeared as the Solicitor General prosecuting the Walker administration last season, makes a name for herself with a greatly expanded role, and several newcomers also spice up the proceedings—especially Lars Mikkelsen as a Vladimir Putin stand-in and the ever-reliable Kim Dickens as an anti-Underwood journalist.

Such talents, both in front of and behind the camera, sometimes make House of Cards seem like more substantial material than it really is. The show desperately wants to be seen as a sophisticated and complex drama, but it’s really a political soap opera graced with A-rate talent and mood lighting. It goes down easy if you don’t think about it too much, but you may just regret the time wasted when it’s over.

House of Cards is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, just like Frank Underwood himself.

Featured Image Courtesy of Netflix

March 12, 2015