When good TV goes bad: how House of Cards came tumbling down

The machiavellian manoeuvring that took Frank Underwood from chief whip to president was thrilling to watch, but it left the show with nowhere to go

When House of Cards first premiered on Netflix in 2013, the biggest story in American politics was that nothing was happening – that Congress, gridlocked over the budget of President Obama, was stuck in a frustrating state of paralysis. By comparison, the show was a parallel universe in which Washington, so mundane in reality, became the domain of snakes and raptors, of machiavellian masterminds epitomised by Democratic congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the house majority whip with ambitions of absolute power. Moodily lit and beautifully shot, it was still always considerably trashier than it looked, but none the worse for it, full of ridiculous dialogue and knowing hyperbole. But not since The West Wing had politics looked so possible, politicians so impressively full of agency. In the words of Obama himself: “Man, this guy’s getting a lot of stuff done.”

House of Cards has always thrived upon topicality. Its third, Russia-centric series riffed upon the homophobic policies of Vladimir Putin; its fourth gave Frank a scandal involving the KKK. Season five had him calling for a travel ban, and also saw his wife, Robin Wright’s Claire, attain power – obviously banking on a Hillary Clinton administration. But yes: in recent years, its outrageous portrayal of American politics doesn’t seem so outrageous any more. If anything, House of Cards has found itself in the impossible position of not being stupid enough to compete with Donald Trump (Claire becoming vice president, despite having no political experience, suddenly seems tame), and yet being too frivolous for the alarming times we live in.

In spite of all these factors, however, House of Cards didn’t ultimately crumble because of context. It was simply text: at the end of season two, Frank Underwood became president and – after the novelty wore off in series three – the show seemingly had nowhere to go. No longer was Frank thrillingly attacking, but stuck in defence, limited by his office, doomed to repetition. Here comes Frank, yet again, with a scheme that makes no sense; there goes Claire, yet again, testing the limits of nepotism; welcome back Doug Stamper, here to brood, relapse and hit someone? Cool; and let’s not forget everyone’s favourite writer, Tom Yates, the live-in lover of Claire who just … sits around a lot?

Worse than all that, though, was that the show had lost its edge, its wit, its dark sense of fun; it didn’t even break the fourth wall that much any more. It was still ludicrous, of course, but in a much more earnest, straightforward way. It asked viewers to believe in Frank and Claire, to take seriously what they were doing, which was difficult, considering that by this time their motivations had grown vague, the show had lost interest in them as people and they were nowhere near as smart as the scripts thought they were. Hark at the great political operator Frank Underwood, for example, whose grand solution to a problem in season five is to push his secretary of state down some stairs. Even Donald Trump isn’t that stupid. Probably.

Contributor

Stephen Kelly

The GuardianTramp

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