When Netflix announced it, even the most avid House of Cards binger struggled to muster enthusiasm. But it has turned out to be a sophisticated, riffing accompaniment to view alongside the Trump presidencyby Lucinda Smyth / June 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
When the first season of House of Cards aired on Netflix in 2013, it marked the beginning of a new golden age of television. This was a pedigree show we had not seen the likes of since The Sopranos. With a Hollywood cast, an eloquent script, an astronomical budget ($100m for the first two seasons), and David Fincher at the directing helm, it sailed onto laptop screens in one thirteen-episode drop. The new golden age presented a revolution not only in terms of content, but form: rather than waiting patiently for a week to see the next episode, viewers were encouraged to consume as much of the season as possible in one sitting. Gone was waiting, here was binge-watching; gone were TV sets, here was laptop streaming. House of Cards was Netflix’s first major foray into the big-budget mainstream—and it was an exhilarating success.
Four years later, things look rather different. As the show creaked into its fifth season last month, even the most avid House of Cards binger struggled to muster enthusiasm. The show’s creator Beau Willimon quit at the end of season four, and many wondered why Cards itself didn’t follow suit. The last four seasons appeared to squeeze every drop from the power-hungry protagonists. From the murderous ascent of Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) to the White House; his struggle to maintain power; his buckling relationship with his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), and their various sexual habits—including a bizarre threesome with son-substitute security guard Edward Meecham (Nathan Darrow)—it was hard to see where the creators could take the characters next.
It was harder still to see why anyone should care. Real-life politics was, by that time, stranger than fiction, and the Machiavellian impulse driving the Underwoods was repetitive rather than gripping. In an early review of the new season, The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber suggested that the “ominous” feeling provoked by the new White House provided a “boon to the show”—but surely the opposite was the case. Going into the new season (judging by the previous four), the show seemed stale: Frank’s smooth, mannered persona no longer ringing true in a populist landscape, and his machinations appearing either ludicrous, or boringly familiar. The target viewership for House of Cards has always been (with its jargon-heavy dialogue) an educated politico crowd—those whose attention is now almost entirely absorbed by events in the real world. For…