“House of Cards” arrived a year ago as The Show That Would Change Television As We Knew It. It had nearly all the bonafides you could ask for – a terrific cast headed by multiple Oscar-winning star in Kevin Spacey, a murder’s row of directors led by David Fincher, revered source material in the British political miniseries that inspired it – and it was going to bypass the traditional system by going straight to Netflix instead of HBO or Showtime, and by releasing every episode of its first season at the same time.
And as viewers watched that first season – many of them racing through it in a kind of competition to see who among their friends could finish first – they witnessed Spacey’s character, House Majority Whip Frank Underwood, meticulously executing a complicated plan about which we knew very little, other than that it was out of revenge for being passed over as Secretary of State, and that it involved the building up of both drug addict Congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) and ambitious young reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). Frank, his wife Claire (Robin Wright) and his chief of staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) got over on anyone who crossed their path, but to what end, we did not know.
Then we got to the end of the season and discovered that the entire thing was a Rube Goldberg contraption that was meant to end with Russo out of the picture – in the series’ most talked-about scene, Frank murdered his guilt-stricken protege and made it look like a suicide – the resignation of the sitting Vice-President, and Frank being appointed to take his place.
It was, to say the least, underwhelming – as was “House of Cards” as a whole, once the novelty of binge-viewing and the prestigious glow cast by Spacey, Fincher, at al wore off. It wasn’t a bad show, but nor was it the instant classic it very clearly styled itself to be, and the longer it went on, the emptier it felt. It won a handful of awards across various groups, but Spacey himself never won – not even the Golden Globe you would have expected to be engraved with his name the moment he was cast – and by year’s end, unheralded prison dramedy “Orange Is the New Black” had usurped it as the Netflix critical darling.
There’s a moment early in the show’s second season – Netflix is, again, releasing all the episodes at once, at midnight Pacific as February 13 turns into February 14 – where Rachel Maddow (one of many TV reporters eager to loan the show some verisimilitude in exchange for a plug) complains that the selection of career backroom politician Frank as the new VP is uninspired. One could maybe look at that as a meta comment on some of the reaction to Frank’s scheme and/or the first season – especially since there is an incredibly meta moment at the end of the season premiere – except that “House of Cards” still carries itself like the most meaningful show of our time. Through the first four episodes, it is almost exactly the same show as it was in season 1, with one significant deficit: Peter Russo’s not around anymore to add some humanity to all the scheming.
“Cards” is a show that does certain things incredibly well. It looks gorgeous, all polished surfaces and ominous shadows, and successive directors like Carl Franklin and James Foley (who between them split these first four) luxuriate in the visual template Fincher set out at the series’ beginning. Spacey chews scenery with gusto and takes pleasure in delivering colorful pieces of advice. (“If you don’t like how the table is set,” he purrs to a colleague, “turn over the table.”) And there are times when Frank’s maneuvers are genuinely clever and fun; the Tea Party exists in this universe, and Frank’s method of winning a budget stand-off with them turns out to be a nice bit of political theater.
Speaking of the Tea Party, “House of Cards” has turned out to be a very apolitical show about politics(*). Frank is a Democrat, but he believes in nothing beyond his own advancement. Other characters discuss policy issues and espouse ideologies, but the series is only interested in that as a plot device, and for the most part reveals Frank’s colleagues to be just as selfish as he is, even if they’re not as competent. Any true believers tend to be marginalized quickly.
(*) Despite that, let me remind you of the blog’s No Politics rule. You can talk about the show, but we’re not going to get into an actual discussion of real-life Democrats, Republicans and public policy.
And because Frank is so single-minded, and also so much better at what he does than anyone else, the series’ Awesome Supervillains Are Awesome view of its main character feels empty and tiring after a while. No one can compete with Frank – the sitting President may be the single blandest character on any current drama, and I’m including both Chris Brody on “Homeland” and anyone on “The Blacklist” who isn’t James Spader – and anyone who gets the slightest bit wise to what he really is and how he works gets eliminated or is too marginal to do anything about it. Gerald McRaney was introduced at the end of the first season as Raymond Tusk, powerful businessman with the President’s ear, and there was a suggestion that he might be strong and smart enough to put Frank back on his heels. Instead, in the early going of season 2, he’s just as easily flummoxed as everyone else by the ruthless sociopath masquerading as a down-home politician.
Every now and then, “Cards” will offer hints of the man Frank used to be before he became the shark we know so well, like an episode last season where he reunited with his old military academy buddies, or a subplot this year where he becomes very upset about a tragedy in Claire’s past. Not coincidentally, these tend to be among the strongest moments of the series, and the highlights of Spacey’s work on it, because in those moments Frank is a person with complexity and mystery, rather than the two-dimensional hustler he is for the rest of the time.
Russo’s prominence mitigated some of that last year, because he was such a damaged, empathetic, recognizably human character even as he was turning into Frank’s puppet, and ultimately his victim. (Spacey was the big name, but Corey Stoll gave by far the show’s best performance.) His murder both robbed the show of its beating, broken heart and revealed Frank to be a much less nuanced character than he had appeared earlier, and the show hasn’t found an adequate replacement at the start of season 2. Molly Parker from “Deadwood” joins the cast as Jacqueline Sharp, an inexperienced Congresswoman whom Frank wants to succeed him as Whip, but she has much more in common with Frank than with his former protege. The scenes with Zoe and fellow reporters Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus) and Janine (Constance Zimmer) are a real drag, with Lucas getting far more to do than the character has earned, and suddenly the most vulnerable and complicated person on the show may be ice queen Claire. The marriage between the Underwoods has always been one of the show’s more intriguing areas – often seeming more a business partnership than a marriage, but with a genuine emotional bond mixed in – and after being stuck in one of the more dead-end subplots last year, Wright gets some strong material this season.
Like Frank, “Cards” has a very high opinion of itself. It wants so much to be An Important Drama (despite having a fairly shallow take on both government and its main character) that it’s far more dour than a show about a conniving political mastermind should be. Frank’s asides to the camera are often the only humor of note, and much of that is undercut by the clumsiness of the device itself, which makes sure to spell out as much of the subtext as is possible in a 10-second witticism. ABC’s “Scandal” also deals with backstabbing and murder in and around the White House, but it doesn’t have the pretensions “Cards” does, and thus is free to tell similar stories in a loopier and more entertaining fashion, and also in such an exaggerated tone that you don’t constantly stop to question the logic of it the way “Cards” unintentionally invites the audience to do.
Though “House of Cards” was introduced as the standard-bearer for Netflix’s approach to original programming, it’s a show that ironically suffers when binge-viewed in the way Netflix encourages. Watching it all in a quick burst allows you to gloss over some of the more contrived plot twists, but it’s not structured with cliffhangers that demand you jump straight to the next episode, and a little of Frank Underwood goes a long way. (Conversely, “Orange Is the New Black” worked incredibly well as a binge show last year.) Having watched the first four episodes in short order, I’m going to take my time with the rest of the season, admiring the shiny packaging and the performances while wishing they were in service to the great show “House of Cards” thinks it is rather than the decent show it actually is.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org