House of Cards: TV Review

House of Cards Episodic Wright Spacey - H 2013

House of Cards Episodic Wright Spacey - H 2013

The continuing political machinations of Frank Underwood and how he's scheming his way to the top. A little heavy handed -- like last year -- but also quite a bit of fun when the tempo moves and Kevin Spacey is killing it, which is frequently. 

The second season of the Netflix series has the same pluses and minuses of the first season, but now may get a fair shake because the weight of expectations is off.

It's strange to think that a series with mostly critical acclaim (at least when it launched), which was also the poster series for Netflix's rise from content streamer to content provider, and one still commanding an impressive pedigree of people in front of and behind the camera, can be the subject of sympathy.

But that's my current emotional state for House of Cards, which returns on Feb. 14 for its second season (which was rumored to be its final one, though negotiations are apparently still alive for more). Why have sympathy for a series that launched with a reported $100 million deal for two seasons and not only brought in David Fincher to direct but got Kevin Spacey and a fairly impressive cast to sign on?

Well, for one thing, expectations are a drag. And House of Cards would have had to be something akin to The Wire or Mad Men to back up the hype it was generating as Netflix's bold entry into scripted programming.

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House of Cards, despite good reviews, was never in that league. But it was very good. And it was interesting. A late-season creative nosedive was the rallying cry from a lot of people, including viewers and critics. Whether that was actually true or not (certainly it was in part), the rise of Netflix's Orange Is the New Black led to House of Cards getting a lot less love on those ubiquitous best-of-the-year lists that come out in December and January.

I put House of Cards at No. 20 (out of 20 for best cable/streaming series), while I had Orange Is the New Black at No. 8. But a lot of people didn't have it on their lists at all, or certainly not in the top 10.

And yet, did it slip that much? Did a lot go wrong from the early episodes critics saw to the end? Not especially. I think House of Cards was a heavily buzzed show that suffered from not being the greatest thing ever and there might have been a "meh" backlash by the time those lists were formed.

But here we are with season two approaching and, based on the early episodes made available to critics, House of Cards is pretty much the same show it settled into less than midway through its first run. It's entertaining and cruises along with a strong pulse. There's a core mystery and American politics is mocked, appropriately, for being a two-party hustle of recrimination and separatism. Dramatically, there's much to be pulled from that divide.

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The familiarity at play in the early episodes is, for better or worse (depending on your take) where the show has settled. It can be overly dramatic, perhaps too neat and simplified (especially for an immensely complicated place like Washington D.C.), and it still sells husband and wife power-at-all-costs couple Frank (Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) Underwood as a little too oily and reptilian for anyone's good.

"There is but one rule," Frank says. "Hunt or be hunted."

And from Claire: "I'm willing to let your child wither and die inside you ..."

The Underwoods might as well be called the Undertakers for how they're sometimes portrayed in House of Cards. A little less of a tightly wound sense of impending kill shot from both of them might be a welcome change.

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And yes, House of Cards can be maddeningly cryptic:

Claire: "You haven't said a word."

Frank: "No."

Claire: "Where does that leave us?"

Frank: "I'm fully prepared. And have been for some time."

OK then.

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But it's also a joy to watch. When the series hits on all of its cylinders, it is precisely the show everyone fell all over themselves about. And Spacey is nothing if not constantly magnetic. The man can take that Southern accent (his character started as a congressman from South Carolina) and make it sound like the politest kind of ear evil you've ever heard.

As season two starts, the wheeling and dealing Frank Underwood, who went from passed-over player to vice president in the span of the first season, is about to take his oath. The carnage he left behind him from last season isn't that far away, but he's got more power now and that means he instills more fear in his enemies.

"He's got power. He's got a lot to lose. And right now, he's winning," says editor Janine (Constance Zimmer), who rightly begins to fear that the Fourth Estate is no match for Underwood, even though nosy reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and eager editor Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus) are keen to expose Underwood for his connections to a string of dirty deeds.

Is Underwood -- check that, are the Underwoods -- unstoppable? It appears that writer Beau Willimon, who is responsible for House of Cards, wants them to get a little bit of the taste of victory they earned last season but not to gorge on it. They must face issues. Big issues.

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Willimon, who paired with director Carl Franklin for the first two episodes, has mostly delivered on the good stuff that makes House of Cards watchable. However, he's still prone to letting Frank pontificate to the point of spouting cliches from time to time. And as much as I love watching Spacey devour every challenge in sight, real politics in a real Washington setting are more likely to come up with bigger obstacles. Underwood's conniving wins too often. Otherwise smart adversaries capitulate too easily. The addition of Molly Parker as a rising congresswoman and the continued brilliance of Gerald McRaney as an advisor who can manipulate the president to his whim are nice counterbalances.

Visually, the series continues the little flourishes that set it apart (such as putting text messages on the actual TV screen instead of a phone screen). And yes, the divisive fourth-wall issue is there, as Frank will turn and address the audience directly into the camera. I know some people really loathed this conceit, but I support it because Spacey often does his most delicious work here.

Cleverly and perhaps as a nod to critics of this breaking-the-wall idea, Frank doesn't actually address the camera in the first episode until just before the end. "Did you think I'd forgotten you?" Frank asks, looking directly into the camera. "Perhaps you hoped I had."

Those are fun moments, times that are essential to cut the furrowed-brow heaviness of Frank's big teachings. Just like his video game-playing personality quirk can welcomingly shift the tone of an episode.

Does House of Cards sometimes overdo it? Sure. There's a heavier hand than is necessary at times. A subplot delving into "the deep web" has all the red flags that kind of story arc might conjure up in your head and proves as it drags on that House of Cards needs to stay more focused to be successful.

That said -- before too many expectations are put on House of Cards yet again -- let's please also remember that it can be damned entertaining just as it is. There are a couple of scenes when Frank addresses the camera in this coming season that are more than worth an overly long ramble about power and politics. Take the show a little less seriously and you might find yourself enjoying it more.

Twitter: @BastardMachine