'House of Cards' Season 5: TV Review

Courtesy of Netflix
Starts dull, but gets fun toward the end.
5/30/2017

Netflix's flagship drama is back, and Frank Underwood is more corrupt and less subtle than ever before, if you like that sort of thing.

Let's get this out of the way up top: The lunacy of real-world politics and the Donald Trump presidency have not made House of Cards dull; repetitive plotting, too many one-dimensional characters and an increasingly broad and hammy lead performance have made House of Cards dull. The lunacy of real-world politics and the Trump presidency have just made House of Cards feel redundant and pleasant, which isn't the same thing at all.

The fifth season of House of Cards is the first without longtime showrunner Beau Willimon. Fans of the series will be relieved to know that new showrunners Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese have kept the trains moving on time, while more tentative or wearied viewers should be warned that the frustrating aspects of the series have only grown worse and House of Cards spends at least seven or eight episodes of the new season spinning its wheels and running on forgettable fumes.

To the show's absolute credit, entertaining and amusing things begin to happen by the 11th or 12th episode, and even though those things are ludicrous, implausible and riddled with plot holes, they set the show up well for the sixth season.

The fifth season picks up just two weeks away from the election that was already dragged through the second half of last season and will continue to be important through most of this season, as I suspect the writers Googled "Constitutional election loopholes" and ran with it. Sitting president Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and unlikely vice presidential nominee and wife Claire (Robin Wright) are capitalizing on the momentum of the partially fabricated terror campaign that they exacerbated at the end of last season to distract from the various scandals that have permanently beset Frank's life. Frank's opponent, Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman), is beginning to feel the stress from the campaign, what with it seemingly never ending, and he has enlisted Republican fixer Mark Usher (Campbell Scott) to get him to the finish line. Of course, it takes a pretty vicious fixer to compete with Frank, eternally grumpy Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) and the rest of Team Underwood.

As contrived and fundamentally unbelievable as Frank's push to get Claire nominated as veep was last season, it filled me with enthusiasm for two reasons: First, Wright has been (and continues to be) the castmember who has shown the most dynamic range in recent seasons and giving her more things to do is smart, especially since Claire has displayed on several occasions that she's possibly better at the game than her husband is. And second, because once you get past the realism problem, the idea of political and personal space blurring in the White House is a compelling one. It's juicy to imagine what it would be like to have the two politicians at the top of the ticket brushing their teeth at the same sink, periodically expressing their love for each other and then trying to figure out who gets to speak at a heated negotiation.

There's enough in that relationship and its changed structure that no contrivances are necessary, but this is House of Cards and Gibson and Pugliese maintain the show's usual lip-service headline-ripping.

Is there an opposite of escapism? Get-further-submerged-in-the-muck-ism?

If CNN/Fox News/MSNBC haven't sated your appetite for stories of voter fraud, media distortion, a fragmented electorate, an initialed terrorist group out of the Middle East and the potential for Russian interference in our democratic process, House of Cards has you covered, but probably not surprised.

Nobody within the show is surprised either, because we've reached the point at which everybody on the show knows and sees exactly who Frank Underwood is. The writers long ago forgot how to display Frank doing anything other than scheming, and none of his scheming in the first two-thirds of the season is all that smart, so it's a lot of time watching people being angry and sick of Frank, despite Frank not doing anything creatively awful, but not really having a character worth rooting for as an alternative, either.

To me, the failure to give Frank more than straw-man rivals remains probably the show's biggest flaw. Conway looked like he might be a worthwhile adversary last year until we saw he was, in his own way, as hollow as Frank — and as well as Kinnaman plays the character's fraying edges, the show treats him like it treats nearly everybody who isn't named Underwood. Poorly. Thinly. Superficially.

I know House of Cards fans are a devoted lot and it's not for me to say that they shouldn't be deeply invested in several dull writers named Tom, one a dull journalist and the other a dull fraudulent novelist and Claire's lover. Nor is it for me to say they shouldn't be deeply invested in Doug Stamper's latest, never-ending gloomy romantic obsession, still with the widow of the guy he bumped down the liver transplant list for Frank last season. Maybe your retention of the dozen interchangeable old white politicians Frank has thrown under the bus is better than mine and maybe you bothered to learn the name of that hacker guy who Julia Salinger from Party of Five recruited to do bad things last season (Macallan, it's Aidan Macallan).

This season focuses on many of Frank's sins coming back to haunt him, but it's his least engaging sins. Yes, the most engaging of his sins relate to dead people, but who out there is honestly going to try telling me that they'd rather get scenes with former president Walker (Michel Gill) or that guy who was vice president before Frank, rather than Remy (Mahershala Ali), Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) and Freddy (Reg E. Cathey), all absent this season? I understand that those actors may be busy, but the new additions only barely fill that void. Patricia Clarkson pops up in the second half of the season as one of those weird cast additions whom nobody had mentioned previously, but magically becomes instantly integral to the storylines for every character without satisfactory justification. Clarkson's Jane Davis, the "Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade," is also odd because she's full of all of these quirky eccentricities, practically a David E. Kelley character, on a show in which nobody else has been given quirky eccentricities. Watching Scott and Spacey be slimy together is a small pleasure, one that would be greater if Spacey weren't slimy with everybody.

I fear that because he's Oscar and Tony and perpetual Emmy nominee Kevin Spacey, we cut him a ton of slack for what is no longer a very good performance. In the early seasons, when Frank's agenda was harder to figure and he had to put on a different face for every person he met, it was a great performance. Nowadays, Frank yells and sneers and badgers everybody equally, including the audience. Last season I began my review with the claim, one that the show's belligerent fans didn't buy, that Frank wasn't addressing the camera as much anymore. Well, the writers sure showed me. Frank's a nonstop fourth-wall-breaking chatterbox this season, over-narrating his way through different locations and pausing the action around him on myriad occasions. The writers and Spacey have decided this is basically going to be a play and he's going to aim for the back row at all times. Some of that comes from the show's critique that politics is just theater and that power corrupts and devours the soul and that because Frank talks to us we're complicit and all of that. These things were also the themes in the pilot. I get it.

Why, angry fans always ask, do I write about House of Cards if I don't like it? Because, dear readers, I'm a critic, not a recapper, and House of Cards remains a show people discuss, one worthy of attention or at least 13 hours of episodic viewing. Also, I used to like the show more and maybe that makes me more genuinely objective when I say that eventually this season gets someplace fun. Wright is still very good. Kinnaman has some moments. In a later episode, Neve Campbell's LeAnn actually changes her expression (the same cannot be said for Doug, Seth or either Tom). In the second episode, a character makes a joke. And the fifth season kept me watching through to the finale, which is more than I can say for something like Freeform's Famous in Love, which I shrugged at and quit on despite being given a full slate of episodes. It's the little things.

Cast: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Joel Kinnaman, Dominique McElligott, Paul Sparks, Derek Cecil, Neve Campbell, Jayne Atkinson, Campbell Scott, Patricia Clarkson
Creator: Developed for American TV by Beau Willimon
Showrunners: Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese
Premieres: Tuesday (Netflix)

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