House of Cards

May 27, 2016

The problem, as always, with the American remake of House of Cards is that it has no idea what it wants to be. Whatever it does try its hand at has been done better by other shows in recent memory. It’s out-camped by Scandal with its taste for Shakespearean-esque monologues and sex filled power plays; outflanked by Boss when it comes to violent malevolence, and its out-classed by The West Wing, who also best it in showing how the political sausage is made.

More importantly all these shows have characters you root for or against, but never forget. This overproduced and undercooked cover of a British classic, relies on Kevin Spacey’s flabby ham alone to grip. And his painful mincing as president Francis Underwood is so unlikeable, so flimsy and far-fetched you find it impossible to invest in his machinations and-more problematically, believe he could hoodwink anyone in Washington.

Since everyone else exists only to serve his purposes, with no autonomy of their own, we really don’t care what Frank does to them, or what threat they pose to him, no matter how often he confides in us via those fourth wall breaking monologues (delivered to camera like a sad old drag queen’s stab at Blanche DuBois).

Here was a chance to really show us what makes Underwood tick. Why he craves power? What he plans do with it when he has it? What effect his own actions have on him? Instead he lays venal plot atop venal plot, pure exposition, the facts of which become difficult to follow because there is just so dam many of them going on, discarded and revisited with what feels like whimsy.

Show-runner Beau Williamson never develops the central character beyond ‘oh matron’ revelations so House of Cards is run much like Donald Trumps campaign for president, giving viewers what the stats claim they want to see and hear, but nothing substantive or genuine.

The one person who’s made any impact beyond Spacey is Underwood’s Lady Macbeth, Claire (Robin Wright), a cigarette smoking ice princess. Oblique with hints of hurt slipping through, she gives us enough to pique our interest. But even she was, up until this point, only a sounding board for Frank, not a true confident. And too often her character behaved in a way that serviced whatever new plot was being thrust upon us, rather than in a manner in keeping with the character.

She left Underwood at the end of its truly terrible third series and it’s her growing independence that makes the fourth series of House of Cards it’s best. Finally, Frank has a rival we know will be treated as his equal… as she’s the only character who has featured prominently from the start.

While Clare goes toe to toe with Alecia Florick when it comes to job fidelity – in four years she’s been a UN ambassador, an NGO’s CEO, First Lady and now a prospective senator- undeniably she’s been her husband’s most valuable asset.

Now she’s a thorn in his side as he attempts to maintain his position of leader of the free world. And this crack in their veneer allows shards from his past to slip into his bloodstream and puncture his political ambitions.

The investigation started by Zoe Barnes is brought to a head, where Williamson shows that hacks can sink lower than just fucking for stories.

This in turn allowed some of the power brokers and power craven who Underwood squashed on the way up to make a stab at revenge. While the pawns who have benefited from his ascent realise that the Queen has left the King exposed.

There’s little pleasure to be derived from watching his rivals for the democratic nomination (Elizabeth Marvel) and the actual presidency (Joel Kinnaman) attempting to take him down. They are never developed enough to ever pose a real threat. But, in two glorious Spacey free episodes in the series midsection, House of Cards really takes flight and shows potential for recovery, and that’s cause it’s all about Clare.

Unfortunately all the new characters introduced fall the same way past characters did. Academy-Award winner Ellen Burstyn rehashes her Flowers in the Attic shtick to great, Gothic effect as Claire’s lizard killing mater, while Academy-Award nominee Cicely Tyson is a retiring senator whose seat Claire is chasing. But their characters leave no trace when their arc is up. The always watchable Neve Campbell does manage to disguise the fact that her character exists only to give the shows most useless goon, Doug Stamper, something to moon over, but she too is wasted.

While the unintentionally hilarious dream sequences, which try so hard for the malevolent oddity of Twin Peaks, instead end up like that time Ailsa saw Bobby’s ghost in the fridge in Home and Away.

It’s another sign the show doesn’t know what it wants to be so it tries a little bit of everything, like a kid at a soda fountain, leaving the viewers with a fizzy, tasteless mess.

The aforementioned Donald Trump has shifted the post when it comes to political dramas showing what is genuinely possible while still passing itself off as a naturalistic drama. But there are very clear sociological reasons for the Trump phenomenon. House of Cards has no such interest in exploring the world that allows the Underwood’s to come into being.

It’s all devious, betrayal, all the time. If you’ve stuck with it up until now, you’ll get more of the same, slightly better than before, but it is still in no way good enough.


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