Okey – I like House of Cards, largely because Kevin Spacey’s facial expressions in this NetFlix original are fucking-A priceless. The show itself is fucking-A ridiculous, and suffers from one fatal flaw that makes it almost – almost – an effort to watch. That flaw is simple: Frank never loses. Not only does he never lose, he never convincingly doubts the outcome, ever. Oh, the script pays homage to doubt. It walks doubt through a warm room and buys it a few drinks, flirting, but it never takes doubt home. Spacey’s performance, even when he’s reacting in rage or doubt, always hints that it’s just for show. And the writers always offer up a solution right away – a solution that is always exactly right.
So, you can be entertained by a show like that, but never really affected by it. Frank is a monster, and he always wins. If the final episode of this show in 2033 or whatever shows Frank in an old-age home, hallucinating that he once became President of the United States, that would not surprise me.
Richard the IV
Much has been made of House of Cards and its relationship to Shakespeare, notably its use of the aside as a narrative device and the parallels between several plays, such as Richard III, Macbeth, and Othello. The problem with these discussions is the fact that the plays being cited were tragedies, and while the protagonists did terrible things and often did so with black wit and a saucy lack of guilt, they generally could be said to have suffered for their hubris and power grabs.
Frank Underwood doesn’t suffer much. Now, maybe the next season will be all about Frank’s fall into disgrace and punishment (Ed: LORD I HOPE SO) but so far Frank is simply the smartest man in the room, and his mean-spirited and largely joyless attitude is justified by the fact that his superpower is always being right and never losing. He may be the least Shakespearean character in the modern tradition of using Shakespeare to imbue your characters with classic weight and gravitas.
And that’s the problem. Frank’s relentless success is fucking boring. The cycle the show goes through roughly every forty minutes is this:
- Frank reveals sick, twisted plan to manipulate the shit out of everyone. Sneers at camera.
- Unbelievably complex plan that relies on people doing the stupidest thing possible because Frank planted a hint in their ear about it five minutes of screen time previously succeeds completely.
- Frank sneers at camera.
The details of the insane scheme are often entertaining, and Spacey is basically having the time of his life playing this character – it’s like going to the Zoo at feeding time to watch some lions devour raw meat in their enclosure. But there are no stakes. Because Frank is going to win, and you know that going in.
Now, plenty of shows require their protagonist to always win – because in TV land we must always have a main character to hang the next season of the show around. So, no points off for Frank actually always winning – but a setback would be nice. A believable threat. Maybe a solid half hour of screen time when it actually seems like Frank might be in actual, real trouble? And then some clever writing. That last bit is the tricky part.
Because, House of Cards is okay at a lot of things. Dialogue. Kevin Spacey Bitchface. Painting everyone in the universe as a sexual pervert and potential serial killer. One thing it is not okay at is plot. It treats plots like a box of feral cats it found on the street which keeps scratching its arms and puking on its feet. Everyone does what Frank wants because it’s the only way the writers on this show can think to keep the plot moving.
In the end, it doesn’t matter: The purpose of the show is to get you to pay Netflix $8 a month, and as far as that goes it works just fine. And there’s always the possibility that in Season 3, Frank will go full on Greg Stillson from The Dead Zone on us, having a threesome with his wife, his secret service agent, and the dead dog from Chapter 1 while he gleefully pounds the LAUNCH button, staring unblinkingly into the camera.
I’d pay to see that.