(This post obviously contains spoilers about the first three seasons of “House of Cards.”)
Netflix’s “House of Cards” kicks off its fourth season on Friday, and it appears the buzz has noticeably cooled. Sure, it’s natural for a once-hot show to fizzle over time. But maybe it’s also because last season, despite typically strong performances from Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, the show featured unnecessarily complex storylines, deadly boring political shenanigans and questionable subplots that served no real purpose.
Although when you think about it… the first season had similar issues. The second season did, too. So we have to ask: Did “House of Cards” sharply decline? Or has it always been this bad?
The latter is plausible, especially when you consider the Binge-Watching Steamroller Theory, an idea from Slate TV critic Willa Paskin. Reflecting on the sheer amount of television last year as the culture hit “peak TV,” Paskin argued that you’re much more likely to heap lavish praise on a problematic TV show if you watch it really, really fast. Especially one that is beautifully shot and has compelling actors.
“There are structural incentives in the current moment to gloss over TV’s baked-in inconsistencies… I think binge-watching steamrolls flaws. It’s like driving down the highway extremely fast. If the scenery is mostly bucolic, the open sewage pit you flew by that one time barely registers,” Paskin wrote. “The greatest trick Netflix ever pulled is convincing us that binge-watching is a sign that something is very good and not just a sign that something is immediately available.”
Some critics, such as the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, noticed these problems in Season 1: “In the days after I watched the show, its bewitching spell grew fainter — and if ‘House of Cards’ had been delivered weekly I might have given up earlier,” she wrote. At the time, The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever said Netflix “has done everything right and still got it sort of wrong,” noting the show was weighted down by its own seriousness.
The format of Netflix is important to the equation, especially when considering why “House of Cards” had such a glowing reception when it debuted in February 2013. Touted as Netflix’s first big series, it made quite a splash as the streaming service took an unusual step and released all 13 episodes at once — a novelty! With acclaimed director David Fincher and esteemed playwright Beau Willimon in charge, the sleek series looked and felt like a movie. Spacey was obviously having the time of his life as evil politician Frank Underwood, and Wright stole the show as his equally scheming wife, Claire.
Critics immediately pointed out the outrageous nature of the show, and some politicos hated it right off the bat for its unrealistic (even for a TV show) view of Washington. Others had major problems with the portrayal of a young female journalist who quickly jumped into bed with a source.
Mostly, though, the show got raves. As a result, some viewers didn’t have time to fully digest the series — they just wanted to hurry and watch to figure out what all the fuss was about. Soon, it became a major part of the cultural conversation, especially in D.C. (As the New York Times put it, “So what episode of ‘House of Cards’ are you on?” became the new Beltway icebreaker.) The show was nominated for nine Emmy Awards and, because of its impressive creators, was immediately welcomed in the “prestige TV drama” club.
As time went on, people eventually started to recognize that while maybe “House of Cards” looked polished, it was ultimately just as ridiculous as any soap opera. (See: dialogue between Frank and his former protege/lover, Zoe Barnes.) “It’s a show filled with political intrigue for those who think they’re too good for something as soapy as ‘Scandal.’ But we are deluding ourselves,” Andy Gray of the Tribune Chronicle said. “‘House of Cards’ is as trashy and over-the-top as ‘Scandal’ without the restrictions of network television.” At the end of Season 2, HitFix TV critic Alan Sepinwall declared it “simply a bad show with the pretensions of a good one — a USA show that’s bad because it thinks it’s an HBO show.”
While the first season tried to at least wink and nod at the viewer with its outlandish plots (such as Frank’s insane, complicated journey to become vice president), the second season went off the rails and abandoned all pretenses of self-awareness while doubling down on the crazy. Frank embarked on such an intricate, multi-step plan to overtake the White House that you needed a flowchart to figure it all out. Oh, and he got away with murder. Twice.
Then the third season brought Frank’s presidency and got bogged down way too much in the specifics of his policies. As others noted, the show became a slog when Frank (and others) turned too earnest with goals to change the world, and far too much time was spent on the “America Works” jobs plan.
Erin Keane at Salon was relieved that the presence of former Frank sidekick Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) spiced things up, and that his character “erased even the tedium of the mid-Season 2 doldrums.” But then Stamper’s arc became one of the show’s most puzzling elements, as it started Season 3 with a prostitute shooting bourbon into his mouth and ended with him murdering a woman. Throw in Frank and Claire’s marital problems — their solid relationship once a cornerstone of the show — and you have a very odd, often dull season of television.
After sitting through a season like that, you go back and start to wonder: Were seasons 1 and 2 an absurd political satire, or were they just as self-serious and convoluted as the third? Considering you likely watched them all within a week years ago, it’s easy to forget — thus the beauty of Netflix. And since the streaming service will never release ratings, no one will ever know how many people even watched in the first place.