The binge-viewing model that streaming video makes possible can work wonders with the right show. If you've never seen “Breaking Bad” or “The Wire” or “Boardwalk Empire” before and can plow through entire seasons in a weekend, the experience can in many ways be even better than if you had watched them weekly in real time when they first aired. Stories fit together more neatly, characters are easier to keep track of, themes and subtext become richer and more apparent.
Then there are the shows for which the binge is not their friend – where the more you watch of them in short order, the more glaring their flaws become and the less exciting their strengths seem. Ironically, one of those shows is the flagship creation of the leader in streaming video: Netflix's “House of Cards,” where the more I've watched – and the closer together I've watched it – the lower my opinion of it has gone.
I began the series being impressed by its pedigree and visual style, but finished its first season finding it to be good but not great. Then I saw the first four episodes of the new season, and by then had downgraded the whole thing to decent: slick and pretty, but ultimately empty.
And by the time I finished watching the second season, most of it within the space of a few days, I had come to the conclusion that it's simply a bad show with the pretensions of a good one – a USA show that's bad because it thinks it's an HBO show.
(Some spoilers for the second season are coming; if you haven't finished it and don't want to know, stop reading.)
Certainly, as I got deep into binging the second half of season 2, I found myself watching “Cards” the same way I tend to watch things on USA or TNT, or various broadcast network procedural dramas: as a thing to have on while I had something else to do, because “Cards” in and of itself wasn't enough to demand my full attention the way that, say, “The Americans” does right now.
And there's nothing wrong with being a TV show people watch while folding laundry or sorting through junk mail. There's a long and noble tradition of that, from “77 Sunset Strip” to “Castle.” But the better examples of that kind of show know what they are and what they are not. They usually do things with a wink and a sense of humor, or at least a sense of self-awareness. And the only time in season 2 that “Cards” demonstrates the latter is when Frank addresses the viewers directly and acknowledges that some of them don't like the device and wish it would go away.
“House of Cards” wants very much to be an Important Show about the intersection of power and government and media and business, and about the depths people will sink to in order to hang onto what's theirs. It has the veneer of that kind of show, with a polished look crafted by David Fincher, then maintained by later directors. (James Foley was behind the camera for six of the 13 season 2 episodes, along with Carl Franklin, Jodie Foster and a few others.) It has a two-time Oscar winner as its star in Kevin Spacey as Vice-President Frank Underwood), an impressive co-star in Robin Wright (who also directed an episode this season) as his wife Claire, and an ensemble made up of actors who played roles big and small in some of the great cable dramas of this century (Gerald McRaney and Molly Parker from “Deadwood,” Reg E. Cathey from “The Wire,” Benito Martinez from “The Shield”). It has all the trappings of quality.
But “Cards” is really a sleazy potboiler about a sociopath politician who will do anything to get what he wants, and about the line of amazingly stupid people briefly standing in his way.
There's probably a fun show to be made with that very premise, where it doesn't matter that all of Frank's schemes are as needlessly complicated as his opponents are easily hoodwinked. You couldn't ask for a better, more enthusiastic chewer of scenery than Mr. Kevin Spacey to front such a show. But “Cards” takes itself much too seriously, when it is absolutely ridiculous and should embrace that. (It has done this show no favors to exist at the same time as Shonda Rhimes' “Scandal,” which is just as absurd in its portrait of the wild things that could happen in and around the White House, but has no illusions about what it is and embraces its own craziness.)
Because “Cards” wants to be treated as prestigious, it then demands to be judged as such, and it comes up wanting.
Frank is an absolute cartoon character, motivated by nothing but his own self-satisfaction, and though Spacey holds the screen, it's also a fairly one-note performance. (On the rare occasions when “Cards” creator Beau Willimon or one of the other writers allows Frank to be a human being for five minutes, Spacey rises to the occasion, but he's also content to coast on being Oscar Winner Kevin Spacey when the material's thinner.)
Worse, though, is the way that almost everyone Frank comes up against turns out to be an utter moron. Every now and then, the writers will devise a genuinely clever gambit for Frank to use against his enemies (the maneuver to get entitlement reform past the Senate was one of this season's more impressive bits of plotting), but most of the time, he gets by because no one seems to understand they're not dealing with the House majority whip, or the Vice-President, but a supervillain who left his cape and trident in the closet. Even the people who get wise to him and the threat he poses make the fatal mistake of telling him, more or less, “Okay, Frank, I know you've tried to screw me 17 times in the past, but I'm going to give you one more chance! But if you screw me for the 18th time, so help me…”
President Garrett Walker (Michael Gill) is perhaps the least impressive fictional POTUS in television history(*), not just because he's a complete sap who falls time and again into Frank's traps, even when he knows to look for them, but because he's such an empty suit, lacking any charisma, intelligence or any other quality that would explain his election. That Frank is able to maneuver Walker into resigning so that he can assume the presidency – without having received a single vote to hold any position in the White House – isn't an impressive victory over a worthy opponent, but a one-sided exercise in making the show's main character look good.
(*) It's him or Wayne Palmer from “24,” with Gaius Baltar only not qualifying because he was president on another planet.
A show where Frank meticulously outmaneuvered worthy opponents could be terrific. Here, though, he's not even playing chess when everyone else is playing checkers (to borrow a line from one of the shows “Cards” admires); he's playing chess while everyone else is still trying to master the rules of peekaboo. Everything comes much too easily for Frank for there to ever be genuine tension.
The other characters not only aren't up to challenging Frank, they're not up to carrying the action when the show moves away from him. The first season had Corey Stoll as Frank's puppet, alcoholic congressman Peter Russo, and it was both a vivid, well-rounded character and a searing performance. Frank murdered Peter late in season 1, and the more I watched of season 2, the more I realized how much my more positive feelings towards the first year came from Stoll, and how much the show suffered in his absence. There are some other excellent actors in the ensemble, but the time spent with them feels perfunctory – like all the “Dexter” subplots about the other employees at Miami Metro, they seem to exist solely to reduce the star's workload, or to create the illusion that the plot is more complicated than it actually is, and not because they're illuminating in their own right.
Claire's gradual realization that she and Frank are terrible people who ruin lives for their own advancement was the one vaguely interesting thread of season 2, and Wright got to do some good work when Claire allowed herself to be more vulnerable. But that wasn't enough to carry the season, and was ignored at times in favor of underfed moments designed to get attention, like Frank and Claire having a three-way with their loyal Secret Service minder Edward Meechum (Nathan Darrow). There's a way to make that scene feel earned, and like an illustration of the complicated Underwood marriage – which is less a romantic partnership than a business one where the two halves still find each other attractive – but instead it played as a wild idea somebody had in the writers' room that no one then bothered to reverse-engineer into earlier episodes(**).
(**) It also seems like the sort of thing you'd try on a show that's airing weekly, to get the audience talking over the next seven days, rather than something to happen only seconds before they jump to a new episode that has nothing to do with that scene.
In my advance review of the new season, I couldn't reveal that Frank murdered reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), but since we're in heavy spoiler territory, I can say that the scene where it happens late in the premiere represents all that's enticing and all that's aggravating about this show. On the one hand, it looks great, is tense, and Frank and Zoe's conversation at least asks some interesting things questions about how much we value morality vs. ambition…
… and then the man who is about to become Vice-President of the United States talks a cynical reporter into erasing all evidence of their relationship from her phone, then shoves her in front of an oncoming subway train, leaving absolutely no evidence of his crime. It's a scene inspired by a plot twist from the British “House of Cards,” and maybe it played better in the original, but here it's yet another dumb thing that happens on a show that fancies itself as being very smart, and therefore can't even really take pleasure in the ludicrousness of it all.
Though Netflix keeps the ratings for this show, like all its others, a state secret, it's already ordered a third season. I assume it will involve Frank tricking a visiting race of naive aliens into giving him control of their intergalactic empire, leading them to shake their green fists at him while he and Claire smirk and fly away in their new spaceship. And it will all be very tastefully directed, and the spaceship will have impressive production design, and it will all be presented with the utmost seriousness.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org