Today at 12:00 AM Pacific Time, Netflix launched all the episodes of the second season of House of Cards, the show that, one year ago, burst into the scene announcing the arrival of the streaming service company into becoming an active producer of its own original programming. Part of the reason for this was that House of Cards featured a pretty impressive list of talent involved in the show. You had David Fincher serving as executive producer and director of the first few episodes, you had Beau Willimon, co-writer of George Clooney’s The Ides of March as showrunner, and you had a cast starring Robin Wright and two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey. Netflix never released data on how many people actually watched House of Cards, but from a branding perspective, the show was undoubtedly a hit. It went on to be nominated and win Emmys and Golden Globes. The story of House of Cards reads as that of a mature, quality show that managed to break the barriers of online programming to become a popular and critical hit. A big triumph for smart television, as the shows that you would find on cable moved one more step into the future by finding their home in the internet. The only problem is: House of Cards is not that show.
My disdain of House of Cards comes on two levels. First, is the fact that I find it a very boring and not at all engaging show. The main reason for this is the lead character of Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey in the hammiest performance of his already superbly hammy career. Frank is basically an evil politician. A congressman who would do anything to climb the Washington power ladder. As we begin season two, he’s at Vice President, so he doesn’t have much higher to go, except to point at the position of President of the United States, which he most likely will do at some point. Frank is not only irritating because he fits so well into the never-ending list of anti-hero protagonists. I’ve already written about how that trope is getting really old and boring, but House of Cards goes one step beyond by not understanding what made those shows good in the first place. Frank Underwood not only does despicable things that make us hate him, he is also apparently the most intelligent person in DC. Anytime he has to pull off some scheme, he doesn’t even sweat a single drop. The anti-heroes of The Sopranos, Deadwood and Breaking Bad all had personal weaknesses that made them have to stretch and contort as much as they could to get their plans to work. Meanwhile, here everything goes according to Frank Underwood’s plans all the time, which make him, and the show, unbearably repetitive.
That is weakness, but also something the should could work around. I’m not a big fan of Spacey, but even I have to admit that there is fun to be had in watching him go over-the-top in his performances. Frank Underwood, with his monologuing breaking of the fourth wall, is a character almost designed for his acting style. The problem, and this will get us into what I find unbearably irritating about House of Cards, is that the show doesn’t seem to realize this. The people making the show might think they’re making a serious political drama, but if you would only read the script for an episode of House of Cards, you would realize it is actually a pulpy, trashy, soap opera. The plots and machinations of the show are so over the top they sometimes stand on the edge of parody. The first episode of the second season, in fact, ends with Underwood delivering a monologue to the camera that is kind of hilarious in its attempt to sound smart and poetic. Then, the camera pans to reveal a pair of cuff links with the letters “F” and “U” on them. Tell me if that isn’t something taken out of the kind of movie that is so unintentionally bad that is becomes a cult classic?
The bad news is that House of Cards is too boring to be a camp classic. While other shows with similarly far-fetched plot machinations at least recognize what is it that makes them work. Take, for instance, Scandal, which is also set in the world of Washington politics. That show is incredibly fun to watch because it doesn’t pretend it is anything but an entertaining show about thrilling cases and romances. On the other side we have House of Cards, a show that can’t be entertaining and thrilling because it refuses to believe that it is closer in nature to Scandal than it is to The Wire. Case in point, the show opens the second season with a long, static, silent shot of Frank and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) jogging together. The kind of shot that belongs in an art film, but that put next to the ridiculous plotting of this show, only seems pretentious. House of Cards is the case of a show unaware of itself. It is the teenager who thinks he is too old to seat at the children’s table, but that only embarrasses himself trying to make serious conversation among the grown-ups.