Is ‘House of Cards’ the Most Stupid Show (not) on Television?

House of Cards Season Two

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.

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8 comments

  1. Jack Burton · September 6, 2014

    Exactly right. And the fact that Spacey’s character has to explain everything to the camera is just lazy writing. It’s not interesting enough to be a scandalous show and not smart enough to be an intriguing show. Your examples of Scandal (haven’t seen one minute of it but heard about it) and The Wire are spot on. I stopped watching it twice already. I can’t watch Kevin Spacey try to act tough with his lame Southern draw and constant crap eating grins he gives us when he seems annoyed or has his opponent just where he wants them. Another thing that the anti-heroes like Tony Soprano, Walter White and Al Swearengen had was likeability. Or some redeemable quality. Kevin Spacey never seems happy for anyone but himself or wife. His singing with his fellow boy toy from college is also pretty laughable and equally annoying. It’s really a liberally written piece of crap. Which is to say, it’s arrogant and like you said, far less clever than it thinks it is. It assumes the viewer is a tool because they are tools themselves without trying to be. I have a feeling people who love this show love it because they think they are suppose to. It’s a sheepish personality. When all the people are watching is MSNBC on the show, I cease to take it seriously.

  2. noodle · October 14, 2014

    My real problem with the show (and I’m not the first person to make these criticisms) is how ridiculous its portrayal of how the Beltway operates is. In reality congressmen (and senators) hardly ever have one-on-one meetings for anything other than golf; everything is done through hordes of aides (Versailles courtiers, really), and corruption doesn’t take the form of complex blackmailing or briefcases full of money in smoke filled backrooms. It takes the form of scheduled meetings with lobbyists and often staggeringly small and petty campaign donations (you can buy a US lawmaker for pennies in many cases). It’s the norm, utterly mundane and commonplace.

    Beltway types love the show because it’s sexy and slick in a way that reality most definitely isn’t. They love to fantasize about a DC filled with clever, mysterious people having passionate sex and taking part in complex power-games. Real Beltway politics is usually shallow, petty, banal and often downright stupid.

    It’s probably too much to say the show is actively harmful, but I have talked to neighbors who are convinced that it in at least some small way reflects how Washington really operates. It doesn’t. Not remotely. Honestly, Veep is closer to the reality. Not only does that show heavily feature the aides (frequently portrayed as handlers for their inept charge, which is quite accurate) but while it exaggerates for comic effect, many of its scenarios have more than a hint of truth in them. Like the one where the Vice Presidents daughter is discovered to have watched the film 5 Broken Cameras and they have to fall over themselves to assure the Israel lobby it still has their full support. Here in the real world, in July, the Senate voted 100-0 in support of the Israeli assault on Gaza. You can’t get all 100 senators to agree on ANYTHING else, but they come crawling when the Israel lobby calls.

    • Conrado Falco · October 15, 2014

      Wow, you seem like you know a lot about Washington. Anyway, I would definitely agree with you that Veep is a much better show that makes much more valuable contributions to cultural and political conversations.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Kevin Spacey · November 5, 2014

    The reason why you are entirely misled is be cause you are too focused on the main character himself, and not understanding the big picture being displayed by the series as a whole. The point is to display how corrupted the United States Government is. This is the purpose of the show, at least initially it was. To point out the type of people who rise to this level of power, and the things they do; “without a second thought” mind you, to remain in power and even advance their personal addenda. “Frank” displays a particularly manipulative polotition, and a seemingly unchallengable protagonist. This is true is true at least until season 3. With his rise in power so too comes a number of adversaries who for each their own reasons, butt heads with Frank. some far more formidable than others, but frank finds it increasingly difficult to put out the fires when he is being attacked from 360 degrees. If after reading this you still find house of cards to be “stupid” then either you are far too jaded to enjoy intelligent tv, or you are far too unintelligent to grasp the rather simple concepts presented by the show, and may be much better off happily enjoying “the real housewives of Miami” with a juice box and a big toothy grin on your face. And to commentor Noodlesays, if all you care about is the 103 seconds of suggested sex portrayed by the show out of the 25 hours of content, in the first two seasons alone, becuse you think polotitions are imune to sex, or affairs, or any of the promiscuous encounters that a great many Americans have, then you sir are blissfully unaware that polotitions are human beings like you and me. Ergo they are susceptible to the same things all people are.

    • Conrado Falco · November 5, 2014

      No need to get so heated, Kevin. I get what the point of the show is, and that is precisely what my complaint is. The show, it seems to me, is too focused on being an expose of the corrupt government, and too little in paying attention to its characters and their motivations. I already know that you have to do shady stuff to become a successful politician, I’m not that naive, I just wish this show would explore that idea, and tell me something new and interesting instead of mirroring whatever other “intelligent” shows do.

  4. Sven · May 14, 2015

    I just finished watching the first season of House of Cards after several people recommended it to me. Since my English is not perfect, I was glad to find your blog and see that someone not only shares my disdain for the show, but has also been able to put it in eloquent words. Thank you for you article, I couldn’t agree more with what you say.

  5. dgreener · May 22, 2015

    I was told to watch the show by everyone and found it to be boring, ridiculous, uninteresting, soapish, and in love with itself. It’s more like Austen Powers than anything else with Spacey playing Dr. Evil.

    • Conrado Falco · May 23, 2015

      great comparison! Thanks for reading!

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