Now in its third season, House of Cards has one of those problems that soap operas bump up against all the time: story fatigue.
You can only ask your audience to buy into the political shenanigans of Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and wife Claire (Robin Wright) for so long, given the Gumbyesque contortions that the series uses to entertain. That manipulation often comes at the expense of believability — because House of Cards refuses to restrain itself and often goes, in a parlance that Francis would approve of, balls out in an effort to make the Underwoods ridiculously ruthless and the series ridiculously entertaining. Unfortunately, after holding out against the cruel intrusion of reality, at some point in season two of House of Cards, ridiculous was the key word for pretty much everything in it.
That wouldn’t be much of a problem if House of Cards was, like a true soap opera, keenly aware of its reputation (like, say, Scandal). Meaning, if House of Cards really believed that its ridiculousness was a wink-wink at the audience, its diversions from believability wouldn’t be so troubling. Instead, House of Cards has been the poster series for both the popularity of Netflix as a streaming service with strong original content and as a big player for the service at awards shows. It takes itself very seriously.
In that role, House of Cards is often touted as a prestige drama a la Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Americans, among others. But if season two proved anything, with its collapsing parade of paper tigers standing up to Frank’s quest for ultimate power, it’s that the series is far more entertaining than it is great. Power wielded by a ruthless married couple as they sack Washington D.C. is a pretty fun thing to behold, soapy as it is racing toward the assured victory, the stakes-free gamble.
There just wasn’t much gravitas in the midst of it as the bubbles got in your eyes.
I’m certainly fine with House of Cards being that show. If you buy into it as a sweet, sparkling wine to be guzzled without care as you binge your way through it, that seems very apropos of what you’re getting. The danger is confusing it with actual Champagne.
It’s not that.
Awards shows are still making this qualitatively dubious connection (as they’ve done to an even worse degree with another soap opera, Downton Abbey). I worry that the creative forces behind House of Cards will blindly accept the accolades and not address the more glaring issues critics (and fans) began harping on in season two. Early episodes of the third season of House of Cards indicate a change of direction might be afoot, though plenty of worry remains that this will be only temporary and the Underwoods will continue to fool and rule the world with the ease of master puppeteers as the season goes forward.
But at least in the early going, creator Beau Willimon and the many executive producers with a hand in this series seem to agree that maybe the Underwoods, now known as the President and First Lady of the United States, need to hit some road blocks that they can’t immediately get around.
A series like House of Cards has a lot of twists to be spoiled, but there’s no point in doing that here — a good soap keeps the twists coming and that’s what the audience wants. But at least in dealing with the basic moving parts of the series, it’s safe to say being President and First Lady isn’t as easy or as satisfying as Frank and Claire expected. Both want more. Frank wants, naturally, to avoid being a placeholder president and focus on getting reelected. But everything he’s tried in office — and most of it has been ambitious — has eroded his approval ratings. Times are tough. He’s not being very effective and Democrats are dubious as to whether he’s the face of the future, especially as the Republicans are lining up in solidarity behind Hector Mendoza (Benito Martinez).
For her part, Claire — in a storyline that harkens back to the Clinton years — isn’t satisfied just being First Lady. She wants to lead and do something. She wants to be political because that’s what’s in her blood. And in a lovely reflection of their odd relationship, Claire has no qualms in telling Frank that if he’s going down in the next election, she plans to ascend at the same time. Power and politics — these two understand it, even if it means telling the other that you’ll carry on if they fall.
After all the cream-puff politicians and supposedly brilliant strategists that the Underwoods have fooled all too easily in the first two seasons, a little payback and a little failure plays well for House of Cards.
However, the worry remains that now that they have the ultimate seats in politics, Frank and Claire won’t go down without swinging and, in true House of Cards fashion, will hit and destroy everything they swing at. If that unbelievable sense of dramatic stakes returns, House of Cards will find itself in a scandal about how good it really is.