So, I’ve been catching up on some television shows recently, and it got me thinking about one of the series my wife and I watch together – House of Cards. Both of us agreed that the recent second season was not as good as the first (in our opinion). While there were some great moments, for the most part, it felt tired and lackluster. Compared with my recent viewing – the second seasons of Treme and Justified (yes, I am eternally behind, and I still have two seasons of Lost to watch, as well; judge me as you will, it’s all good) – House of Cards isn’t even in the same ballpark as many of the other shows I watch. And it seems to me that one of the main problems I have with the show is that it feels as if the writers took away the wrong lessons from some of the more revered television shows, just as the grim ‘n gritty comics spawned by Watchmen, Dark Knight, et al. also did. They seem to have transferred the surface “flash” of these critically acclaimed series and forgotten to build a strong foundation from which to propel the drama.
The first thing they seemed to want, in the character of Francis Underwood, was to have a protagonist who was evil. Kind of like Walter White on Breaking Bad. Probably the best TV series I’ve watched (no surprise there, though David Simon’s The Wire is certainly in contention), Breaking Bad certainly isn’t a bad template from which to appropriate. But, if they were using Walter White as a sort of jumping off point, the writers missed the boat.
An aside – SPOILERS AHEAD: I’m not saying the writers wanted to make Francis Underwood a direct clone of Walter White, nor do I even feel they wanted a passing similarity to him. Walter is a man whose life turns upside down with the diagnosis of his cancer in the first episode, and we then watch as his ego and the fracturing of his psyche due to this terrible tragedy pushes him to change into the villain we see at the end of the series. Conversely, Francis Underwood is a determined politician willing to go to any lengths in order for his dreams to be consummated – characteristics that, though taken to a far more extreme portrayal, are familiar to us and work within the context of the show, to a certain extent.
The biggest problem with Underwood’s characterization, for me, is that I do not find him sympathetic at all. He is a power hungry politician who goes to ridiculous extremes to insinuate himself into the White House, where he works to push himself into the Oval Office. You can’t just have an anti-hero as the primary character in your drama, you need to have something more for your audience, something that will allow them to relate to him or her and keep them engaged. Otherwise, you’re just showing us the narcissistic underbelly of humanity, which can be fine in small doses but has trouble holding up under lengthier scrutiny.
Another lesson House of Cards seems to have taken from another popular show – Game of Thrones, for all three of you playing along at home – is the idea that killing off major characters within the series can add drama and tension to the overall narrative. Well, that may be the case with the HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s life’s work, but it doesn’t work so well with the Netflix original. Certainly, the first murder by Francis was surprising (well, that’s not completely true, as it was telegraphed from a mile away; so, maybe unexpected, if one was attempting to parse out who would live and who would die after only the first episode), but the second one felt almost comical, to me. Though I admit it was more of a surprise than that initial homicide, it still didn’t feel like it had any weight to it. I think the main problem I had with it was that it felt all too easy (Star Wars shout-out), not just in terms of effecting the murder, but also in the manner with which Francis went through with it. There was surprise, maybe a little shock, but I felt no connection to the experience, which is what the writer must do in order for great drama to work. With Game of Thrones (I’ve only watched the first season, to date), I was invested in Sean Bean’s character of Ned Stark. Even as his beheading was playing out on-screen, there was a part of me hoping, and believing, that maybe he would be reprieved. I had a visceral response to that scene, and that character, a response and engagement that is wholly lacking now, with regard to Francis Underwood.
Ultimately, the biggest issue with House of Cards is the fact that the writers are not building up any tension within the overall narrative of Francis and Claire Underwood. The strength of the actors, and their presence, propelled me through that initial season and kept me intrigued and engaged with the show. But with the culmination of the second season, it is patently obvious that there is nobody who can stand up to Francis, and that fact saps the series of any tension for me. Even Don Draper has a nemesis, in the form of Pete Campbell, who feels as if he could topple the house of cards (see what I did there) that Don has built up beneath himself. The writers there have done a good job of building up the characters around Don, in order to give him worthwhile foils that can enhance the tension and propel the narrative to new and interesting places. There are some issues I have with that show, as well, but I’ve never felt like leaving Mad Men behind as I plan on doing when the third season of House of Cards becomes available.