A couple of weeks ago, I argued that our relationship with television has become dysfunctional: We’re dragging ourselves through shows that we don’t like or that aren’t actually any good at all, because we’ve become convinced that we owe it to them. In the time since, one of the primary examples of this sort of show has returned. In its fourth season, “House of Cards,” Beau Willimon’s portrait of a scheming First Couple and the people who stand in their way, is the same old fraud it’s always been.
There are all sorts of things about “House of Cards” that make it look like the sort of show that we should take seriously.
It’s got a stacked cast, from Kevin Spacey, who was one of the first movie stars to cross over to television, to Molly Parker, whose work on “Deadwood” was the kind of contribution that made television seem like an attractive medium for serious actors. The series has David Fincher, another glossy movie name, attached as an executive producer, though he hasn’t directed an episode since the first season. “House of Cards” has a rich, if cold, house style; everything in the series seems to happen in the dead of night, or in rooms that have never been touched by the sun. It’s got sex, it’s got violence, it’s got all sorts of references to arcane policy issues, and it’s got cynicism by the truckload.
But in fact, these very things that disguise “House of Cards” as prestige television — more importantly, as good television — actually strip it of its power to say anything very significant, or even to make rudimentary amounts of sense. The series is revolted by the conventions of soap opera, but its persistent soberness means that its elaborate plot twists often end up making its characters look stupid.
You can’t simultaneously claim to be telling the truth about Washington while simultaneously telling a story where people are constantly getting murdered or attacked and no one notices or deal with the repercussions. “House of Cards” insists that Frank and Claire Underwood (Spacey and Robin Wright) are master manipulators, but the series simultaneously has them constantly acting from ego and whim in ways that would be utterly destructive, undercutting their supposed political genius. And while the show wants to suggest that Frank Underwood’s instrumental approach to politics and policy has real consequences for the people buffeted by his decisions, “House of Cards” treats his choices with the same cool detachment that Underwood himself does.
By pretending to be the sort of show that assesses Washington soberly while falling back again and again on soap operatic rhythms of storytelling, “House of Cards” succeeds at neither.
It’s fascinating to contrast “House of Cards” with “Scandal,” Shonda Rhimes’s fever dream about Washington, which, by embracing an entirely different set of conventions, seems to have forfeited its right to be analyzed as “prestige” television, but is nonetheless much more psychologically astute about race, sex and power.
If Claire Underwood’s fumblings for a position that will satisfy her ambition often felt more random than strategic, “Scandal” has managed to chart a far more logistically and emotionally credible political rise for former first lady Mellie Grant (the always-outstanding Bellamy Young). “House of Cards” spent much of the first third of its season suggesting that the Underwoods’ relationships with black voters and lawmakers is somehow fraudulent — a plot that’s the closest the show has come to actual relevance in ages given the contours of the Democratic primaries — but managed to sidestep any actual views the couple have about race. “Scandal,” by contrast, has dived straight into the messy, bloody, conflicted guts of how race plays out on a national stage, especially when it comes to how race intersects with sex and power.
Especially in a political season defined by the sort of lunacy that pop culture has only dared to imagine, the soberness that defines “House of Cards” actually comes across as naive. The show is the establishment to the insurgency of “Scandal,” Jeb Bush to Shonda Rhimes’s Trump-like showmanship. And “House of Cards” ought to be a valuable lesson for us.
Just because you mash up sex and violence in a vision of damnation doesn’t make your show a meaningful commentary on sin. Just because you decorate the places where your characters live with the entire Pottery Barn catalog doesn’t mean it looks like actual people live there. And just because your exterior is cool and imposing doesn’t prove that anything of significance lies beneath your lustrous surface.