House of Cards: Pretty, Vacant

As the first original series produced by Netflix, House of Cards has provoked a lot of discussion about the future of television creation, the ideal method and timing for releasing episodes, and the increasing number of movie stars jumping to the small screen.  That’s all well and good…but is the show ultimately effective?

The answer, frankly, is no.


Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Two seasons in, with a third dropping in early 2015, House of Cards (based on a BBC mini-series that stemmed from a novel) chronicles the blood-thirsty pursuits of congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey).  The House majority whip, Underwood seethes over the newly-elected president reneging on a promise to make him Secretary of State; in response, he hatches a litany of schemes designed to bring him more and more power at the expense of everyone in his way.

At first, it’s fairly entertaining to watch Underwood manipulate people, but before long, the show’s biggest problem dampens that pleasure: he has no worthy antagonist.  None of his opponents is even remotely as smart, ruthless, or forward-thinking as he is, and the result is that his plans fall into place far too easily.

When things always go perfectly according to plan, the lack of conflict cannot be overcome.  Would you have wanted to see Jason Bourne outwit a team of high schoolers, to watch a witless Hans Gruber fold at the merest hint of John McClane’s resistance?  Of course not.  We crave the reversals, surprises, and conflicts that, unfortunately, can’t exist when Underwood repeatedly runs over over a hapless collection of nincompoops.  It’s boring.

To that end, Cards officially lost me with Underwood’s ridiculous scheme to become vice-president.  To achieve that, he persuades the current #2 to abdicate his throne (to run for a governorship!) by telling him the president was saying oh-so-mean things about him.  And how does Underwood get the president on board with the vice-president’s resignation?  By claiming that the Veep was talking smack about him.  Apparently, these two men never attempt to, you know, talk to each other or get to the bottom of Underwood’s claims; instead, like two docile old dogs, they wilt under the pressure of his demands.  These are presumably two of the most powerful, ambitious men in the world, and Underwood’s high school tricks completely flummox them.

Cards also critically erred by eventually making its protagonist as vile as he is ambitious.  Early on, when you weren’t sure just how much you liked Frank, when you hated yourself for rooting for him, when the charm and cunning nicely balanced his devious side, the show was far more interesting.  But once he starts killing people left and right to further his own goals, all semblance of nuance and complexity is lost.  Once you realize that he doesn’t have a single shred of empathy or compassion (and that his vaunted ‘cunning’ is really just him triumphing over idiots), then who gives a shit?

[pullquote]Once you realize that he doesn’t have a single shred of empathy or compassion (and that his vaunted ‘cunning’ is really just him triumphing over idiots), then who gives a shit? [/pullquote]

I won’t analyze every character on the show, but I want to make special mention of Kate Mara’s intrepid reporter, Zoe.  Unfortunately, she does little but introduce clichés, wooden acting, and numerous oh-come-on moments to the proceedings.  In a sea of excellent actors, Mara looks hopelessly out of her depth, as she can’t bring out the naiveté, sex appeal, or ambition that Zoe is supposed to possess in spades.  But, to be fair, she’s not helped by scripts that force her into predictable scenarios.

Within about 17 seconds of meeting her, you expect her to trade sex for stories, which makes it bizarre that the show treats that plot turn as some sort of revelation.  And, writers, just because you reference Deep Throat as your reporter furtively talks to a powerful source of news late at night, it doesn’t make the scene feel any fresher.

Of course, Zoe accounts for the most shocking, buzz-worthy moment of the show—her sudden death at Frank’s hands in a subway station.  It’ll make you tense up and rewind the first time you see it, sure, but the scene makes little logical sense—not Zoe willingly deleting her texts from Frank moments beforehand, nor the presumption that nobody saw Frank entering or leaving the station (his disguise notwithstanding).  Is it exhilarating in a sort of holy-shit way?  Sure, but shock value for the sake of shock value does’t mean much once Twitter has moved on to a new trend.

Some of House of Cards’ problems are structural, almost impossible to fix without a complete overhaul, like the unstable foundation of a home.  But sometimes painting over ugly wallpaper in the living room can help too, and that’s why the show should have excised Underwood’s addresses to the camera.  Every time Spacey ‘breaks the fourth wall’ and talks directly to us, it jars us out of the moment.  It’s lazy writing, a shortcut for conveying exposition and building character at the expense of the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

The most enriching viewing experiences come when you utterly lose yourself in a show or movie, when you forget you’re watching fiction and believe you’re absorbing reality—and that can’t happen with Spacey halting scenes to preen into the camera every ten minutes.  Although a few of his lines are amusing, the technique overwhelms the dialogue; and too often, he’s just blabbering for the sake of making noise.  When he talks tough to the president, we don’t need him stopping to remind me that it’s ballsy to talk tough to the president. We get it, buddy.

Full disclosure: I stopped watching before the end of Season Two.  By then, the pace had slowed to a crawl, and the characters’ one-dimensional natures had soaked up all of my interest.  (Apparently a spontaneous threesome occurs late in season two; that sort of thing is typically a flashing neon sign indicating that the shark has been jumped.)

Most of all, House of Cards serves as a striking reminder that not all slow, depressing work is artistically rich.  I understand the reflexive desire to praise it, but it just doesn’t withstand any scrutiny.  But that’s OK; sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that the mere presence of award-winning actors committing inappropriate acts doesn’t equal Great Television.

Dan and Brian from Earn This now have a film review site and podcast:

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2 thoughts on “House of Cards: Pretty, Vacant

  1. Did you happen to watch the British original? I feel most of the American version’s problems come from adhering too closely to the arc of the British one. I guess you could argue it sticks too closely to the stylistic elements, too (the original had the fourth-wall-breaking…it’s “cheeky”). But the ridiculously convoluted route to VP came about because it’s simply easier to become Prime Minister of the U.K. than the President of the United States. Another factor is length: In the British show, Frank (excuse me, FRANCIS) goes from whip to prime minister in four episodes. In the American, they threw in the plot padding necessary to fill a standard 13-episode season. In season 2 of the British version, he fights the King. America doesn’t have a king, so of course Frank is relegated to VP so he can spend the season fighting the president. (He becomes president at the end when he convinces the sitting pres to resign, just as British Season 2 ends with him convincing the king to abdicate). I’m actually slightly disappointed to have watched the British version, because with the American version following it so closely I’m afraid I already know the end of the upcoming third chapter. I thought it was a pretty good twist; perhaps you’d disagree.

    As far as other elements go, I actually rather liked the addressing-the-camera gimmick…I guess mostly because it sets the show apart (and gives us some “one-on-one” time with the only interesting character). But like you said, the lack of conflict is a major problem with the show. I felt the same way about “Dexter,” particularly as it wore on: There’s nothing interesting about watching a character constantly lie to characters too stupid to be suspicious.

    All that said, yeah, I’m going to watch Season 3.

    • Yeah, this definitely would have worked better as like a 4 or 6-episode miniseries. There just isn’t enough meat on the bones of this story to sustain 20-30 hourlong episodes.

      I haven’t seen the British version, no, but if what you’re saying is accurate…it doesn’t sound like they even should have tried adapting the series. It sounds like it plays a lot better over the pond.

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