Review: House of Cards, Season 1 (Fincher, 2013)

Still from the TV show House of Cards, Season 1

Eventually it won’t matter if something is classified as a movie or as a TV show. So forgive my long delay because I’ve been, in essence, watching an 11-hour movie.

No, that’s a glib comparison. Because, you see, the quality’s still not quite there. And yet, everyone loves this show. 81% on Rotten Tomatoes with a 97% audience approval rating. A 9.1 out of 10 from IMDB users. Why?

Perhaps it is not so surprising considering that Shakespeare’s political intrigues are among his most popular plays. Antony and Cleopatra. Hamlet. And, of course, MacBeth. And are not the Underwoods modern-day MacBeths? The ruthless, conniving power couple. Frank Underwood is the Democratic House Majority Whip, and his wife Claire Underwood heads a clean water NGO. I assume the characters’ occupations were very deliberate choices: a Republican Whip with a business leader wife would have been too expected. This combination is far more cynical. And who better to play them than Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright? We love Kevin Spacey best when he is at his most chilling. Se7en, The Usual Suspects, even, oddly, 21. (And I read that there are some older evil roles I haven’t yet seen.) Power-obsessed Frank Underwood feels like a direct descendant of those former characters. And Robin Wright with her calm coolness (and short haircut) evokes her character in Adore. In this role, however, she is Frank’s match: frightening in her own right.

Star-studded cast aside, this series’ first season massively disappointed me. I was willing to be led along for the first two episodes, but I balked in episode 3 (for those who’ve already watched, this is the Peachoid episode) at the ludicrous mini-scandal that drags Frank back to his home town of Gaffney, South Carolina. I am as convinced as the next person about the public’s stupidity, but this level of contempt is almost offensive. Especially in the beginning of the season, there seemed to be many such contrivances: clumsy plot devices that get the characters where they need to be. Another example is Underwood’s desperate gambit to end the teacher’s strike at the end of episode 6. The outcome is only thinly plausible–too thin, in my opinion, to support its own importance to the plot.

My other main complaint with the show’s writing is over its characters. Frank is, well, mostly consistent. Perhaps too consistent, though. Is there nothing behind his coldness but more coldness? Is that the “surprise” of his personality–that he is even, a blackheart through and through?

His wife Claire, by contrast, seems sometimes schizophrenic, oscillating between breathless cruelty and meek doubt. The dimensions pretend to complicate and deepen her character but are thrown together so haphazardly that they hardly a real person make. The most cogent explanation for her motivations is that she is ambitious–not the way that Frank is (nakedly power-hungry), but in that she wants to be someone. That yearning is interesting because its unspoken context is that she is a woman, and her ambition is both female and a defiance of femaleness. She eschews motherhood, the ordinary feminine life (as she explains in a bizarre scene with her husband’s former security detail), but the impact she seeks is not so much authority but legacy. Nevertheless, the different parts of Claire threaten to blow apart, never cohering to a believable personality.

And then there’s Peter Russo, junior Congressman from Philadelphia and one of Frank’s many pawns. His character takes inconsistency to a whole new degree. Aggressive, soft, whiny, belligerent, ambitious, weak, resourceful, incompetent, mawkish, insecure: these are all adjectives that the writers seem to have had in mind at different points in the season when developing Russo. It is as if they traded off creating scenes and each screenwriter had a different vision for this character. Was it Corey Stoll‘s acting? I don’t think so, though I don’t think he helped.

Despite these criticisms, the show is not irredeemable. What House of Cards does best is what it promises to do: political suspense. There are plenty of thrills to be had, and, for the most part, the plot twists are just smart enough to keep one step ahead of the audience (but not, it’s worth noting, enough to unduly impress us). If I was ready to throw the whole show away after episode 8 (the tawdry attempt to enrich Frank’s character left me bored and unmoved), the last two episodes (12 and 13), which rely heavily on good old-fashioned intrigue, had me itching for more–albeit in that cheap, I-wanna-know-what-happens-next way. Luckily, there’s a whole other season to watch. And one after that, too.

Flaws in character development aside, the writing of Beau Willimon (who is a political aide turned Julliard-graduated scriptwriter) is immersive. There is a refreshing  fearlessness to it, balancing as it does just on this side of the incredible, enacting the conspiracy theories we all secretly believe are true but finally dismiss as impossible so we can sleep at night. That’s the beauty of the show’s suggestions: most of them seem so familiar, and in our age of gross political misconduct, sadly probable.

Note: Today’s bathroom conversation

Me, upon reading an old article about Chris Christie in The New Yorker: Hey, do you think Christie might be a real-life Frank Underwood?

Husband: Why?

Me: [Reads an excerpt from the article]

Husband: Psh, that’s nothing. Actually, most politicians are probably like Frank Underwood. It’s just the show that makes it seem like he’s the only one like that.

Me: And here I was thinking the show was too cynical…

What do you think? Are all politicians Underwoods, or are some of them “good” people?