This review, therefore, is hamstrung even more than usual. I won’t mention any of Season 2’s upcoming plot points, but I will assume that you’ve finished Season 1 (if not, then we need to secure the room), or that you don’t really get all the fuss. I have a special affinity for viewers who jumped aboard the “House of Cards” binge-wagon on the advice of friends, rave reviews (not mine) or the simple fear of missing out, only to find the show was too heartless to really enjoy.
I, too, think “House of Cards” is almost prohibitively sinister, even considering the average American’s contempt for the ways of Washington. I’ve lived here too long to believe fully in grand schemes and master plans, which is why the bumbling chaos and ego implosions of HBO’s comedy “Veep” seem far more like the Washington I know.
As many wonks have noticed, “House of Cards” clings to this notion that Washington power (or “power”) centralizes and eventually edits itself down to the shrewdest player, who gets to become a master puppeteer. So strong is Frank’s power now that he can even bend Congress to his will, a resonant fantasy for an era of gridlock, debt ceilings and shutdowns. Viewers can’t be blamed for seeing “House of Cards” as an appealing antidote to partisan powerlessness, and it’s not entirely baseless. We’ve all had the pleasure of trying to figure out how the shots really get called.
Meanwhile, I don’t buy the central artistic argument “House of Cards” that giving the audience someone — anyone — to root for is a cop-out, or that the melodramatically nasty Frank (Kevin Spacey) and his equally vicious wife, Claire (Robin Wright, who won a Golden Globe last month for her steely, perfectly clenched portrayal) are simply drawn from Shakespearean templates.
I also find it hard to offer unqualified praise to a show that can soar in one minute and then, two scenes later, makes me feel like I’m rummaging through the discount table of thrillers at an airport book shop. Frankly (no pun intended), when I want to be delighted by the nastiness and self-interest in power plays, CBS’s “The Good Wife” stands ready with its ever-adjusting interpretation of right and wrong, mining the same high-tech pitfalls and speed-of-text social mores that “House of Cards” leans on.
When people tell me how much they love “House of Cards,” I like to ask them to describe how it makes them feel. I keep waiting for someone to say “happy.” As good as it can be in its very best moments, “House of Cards” is a deeply depressing way to spend 13 hours, whether rationed out like treats or gobbled up in a weekend. It’s only ever about people doing wrong.
Many of my favorite shows are just as morose and fixated on the downward spiral of human nature — “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” “Boardwalk Empire” — but they each have a better grasp of tone. “House of Cards” is almost willfully and sadistically atonal. Its schemes and subplots and internecine politics undulate and intertwine with a suffocating kind of flatness. I find these new episodes watchable yet sterile.
As viewers know, Underwood, the House majority whip (a Democrat from South Carolina) who took his resentment at being passed over for the job of secretary of state to murderous and complicated extremes last season, has schemed his way to becoming vice president. But an untidiness remains in the wake of all that. After her bizarre sexual encounters with Underwood, former Washington Herald reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), who now works for a Web site called Slugline, is getting closer and closer to piecing his scheme together, aided by her boyfriend/ex-editor, Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus), and her newsroom rival, Janine (Constance Zimmer).
Spacey’s work in “House of Cards” wavers between that of a virtuoso and an occasional hack. At a point where I’d hoped showrunner Willimon and his writers might have bravely abandoned the broken-fourth-wall soliloquies and asides in which Frank turns to the camera and oozes quotable insight, this demon returns: “Did you think I’d forgotten you?” he drawls, looking us dead in the eye. “Perhaps you hoped I had.”
What we are engaged in here — and make no mistake, after the four episodes they’ve let me see, I’m game for the other nine — is a form of post-television masochism. By being so cruel, so grueling, “House of Cards” is the perfect show to dump on viewers all at once: It’s a test to see how much hurt we can take. It’s as if, knowing how “messed up” “Washington” is, we’ve turned to this fictional big shot politico Underwood and asked him to slap us, hard, over and over. You don’t want to like it, but a twisted part of you really does.
House of Cards
All 13 episodes of Season 2 are available for streaming beginning Friday at 3:01 a.m. on Netflix.