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 them as much as anyone else, more unrelenting cynicism would surely be a headache.
“When the new season was announced, real-life politics was stranger than fiction”
What is therefore surprising about the new series is that it does deliver. A refreshing, hysterical spin on current affairs, the plot moves at a dizzyingly fast pace compared to previous seasons, the technical dialogue is jazzed up with jokes and wry to-camera explanations, and the action—rather than the relationships or the script—is at the centre of the show. It’s a bold departure from Willimon’s approach, but it works.
One of the main reasons for this surprising success is a new experimentation with form. The first episode opens with a close-up of Claire. “I’ve been meaning to talk with you,” she says straight into the camera, as though addressing the viewer. “It’s terrifying, isn’t it?” For a moment, this seems to be Claire breaking the fourth wall—she gave a long, menacing look at the camera in the season four finale that suggested she was aware of the meta-narrative. But then the camera pans back, and it transpires that she is in fact recording a public broadcast. It’s an early nod to where the show may lead us later on—and, in the meantime, a clever camera-trick to lure in the audience.
Fittingly, there is also a certain slipperiness to Frank’s to-camera monologues. During a public speech in the third episode, where Frank announces he is issuing an executive order, he begins to veer off on a vitriolic rant, and it’s unclear at which point he breaks the fourth wall. “By virtue of our constitution, and the laws of our land, including section blah blah of the blah blah act… paragraph bullshit, bullshit,” he spits. Then a sudden swivel to the camera: “In case you have no idea what’s going on, I’m swelling these state national guard troops to create secure public places on election day.” It’s not immediately clear (though, on reflection, highly unlikely) whether the comments about “paragraph bullshit” or “blah blah” are included in his address or his meta-narrative.
“Though the traces of Trump are obvious, they aren’t heavy-handed”
Two seasons ago this elision would have been unthinkable—but it’s the kind of irreverent comment which now wouldn’t sound out of place in politics, inside or outside of House of Cards. Frank’s persona has undergone something of a populist shift. Scratching away his cultivated Southern gloss, he is now a president who denounces the media, who rings directly into talk shows, who brashly denounces terrorists at a state funeral, and who stamps his feet so violently when cross-questioned that his bright white comb-over wobbles. If this sounds familiar, it’s not meant to be subtle: the chant of “Not my president” opens one episode; a reference to “Donald Duck” alongside “coin-flipping theory” opens another. But though the traces of Trump are obvious—and arguably necessary—they aren’t heavy-handed.
Try as Netflix might, it remains true that the most riveting political drama is playing out on the world’s stage, and no TV show, including House of Cards, is able to compete. But that doesn’t mean there is reason to give up on the show. Rather than pandering to the clichés that the Trump presidency might tempt, Cards presents a sophisticated, riffing accompaniment to view alongside the main event. Intriguing, smart and creepy as ever, its new direction sets us up nicely for a sixth season.