I’ve currently watched House of Cards, the Netflix series, through episode 7. The show is engaging and fun, and I’m greatly enjoying it. The world of House of Cards would be a terrible place to live, but it makes for exciting political machinations that bear comparison more to Shakespeare’s rulers than to the American Capitol. That is to say, House of Cards has ice in its veins.
One of the problems with House of Cards long term success will be whether the creators can maintain this iciness without embracing complete melodrama. Which is harder than it sounds. Even in these first episodes, Congressman Frank Underwood’s actions are at times eye-rolling in their absurdity. The show has embarked on a tight-rope act, and requires delicate and precise decision-making to keep such horrible actions watchable. Such decision-making separates the fun shows from the great shows. It’s unclear yet how House of Cards will go in that regard.
So far, there are ways House of Cards make the audience squirm that are downright terrible, vile and delicious. Underwood knows human nature, for example, and his ability to game around the capitol and his home town in S. Carolina with equal aplomb makes for exciting viewing. See the sermon on the Peachoid, for example. And when such aplomb fails, like the CNN debate, Underwood’s own squirming is even better.
But there are other times when House of Cards makes the audience squirm in ways that are terrible and only terrible. The show must walk a fine line between drama and farce, and on occasion it falls well over that line in ways that likely seemed inspired in the writers room, but in execution are contrivances better suited to a pulp novel than to a monsters-of-politics cable show. See, for example, Zoe’s Father’s Day phone call (ugh), or Peter Russo’s bath at the Underwoods.
Still, it is early, and the show is finding its footing (that’s how it feels anyway; does that foot-finding work the same way in a show that only streams and does not air?). And House of Cards is a very fun show. The marriage of the Underwoods alone makes the program worthwhile. Claire Underwood and her work at CWI deserves a show of its own, in fact. Zoe’s development into a media-monster to rival the political-monster of her mentor, too, is fascinating. I am hopeful that House of Cards will embrace the Shakespearean cosmic worldview that it’s clearly toying with, but do so without silliness. That world of the mighty and the meek and the intertwining thereof, of the power hungry and their destined fall from glory and into tragedy. We’ve already seen Iago and Lady M and Richard III, among many other allusions. Perhaps we’ll see some Corolianus, later. (I’m yet to see much of Macbeth in the Congressman, myself, though others make the comparison).
There can be only one fate for a man like Frank Underwood in drama, though I’ve yet to figure out how anything will come to be resolved. Like the political leaders that fall on their swords time after time in Shakespeare’s tragedies, Frank Underwood lacks restraint. I’m anxious to see what House of Cards does with such a man.
**As an aside, last night my wife and I watched two episodes of House of Cards. When it was finished it was pretty much time to end our evening, but we could not go from the world of House of Cards to dream-land without a buffer. As I am always watching my way through 30 Rock, we turned on an episode to carry us to our natural state as warm-blooded mammals. As I’ve said before, 30 Rock is the funniest show that I’ve ever seen. But watching it directly after 2 hours of House of Cards, oh man, it was like a salve to an open wound. Never has 30 Rock been quite so human as watching it after House of Cards. If House of Cards is a world devoid of friendship–and it is, 30 Rock is a show about how to have, and keep, friends. That sounds trite. But really, it is not.