House of Cards - Season Two

Now that I’m a couple of days removed from watching season two of House of Cards, I have formed two definitive thoughts:

1. This series remains a perfect fit for Netflix’s delivery model.

2. This series should be better than it currently is.

I don’t think I’ve ever watched a show that is so watchable, to the point where I can watch an entire season in two days, and also be so empty thematically. The only show that had a similar effect on me was the first three or four seasons of Entourage. Has there ever been a show that is more watchable than House of Cards? It’s a lot of fun to watch a show that is set in the world of politics, where we see the most powerful people in the world interacting with each other, and every scene is filled with luxury cars, high end couture, and more Mac products than you will find in any Apple Store. There is also an expert level of cinematography at display here, the scenes are all expertly shot and it’s a real joy to just watch the show. This isn’t something that you usually think about when you talk about the quality of a show, but when it comes to bingeing on a series, the cinematography can make a big difference. Shows like House of Cards and Breaking Bad look gorgeous from scene to scene, and it makes the viewing experience that much better.

If you watched the first season and fell in love with Kevin Spacey’s performance as Frank Underwood, then I am reasonable sure that you will at least like season two. Spacey is still magnificent as the caricature of a corrupt politician. He still hams it up, and constantly breaks the fourth wall to great effect. The show is always at its best when Spacey is on the screen, and I would say even more so this year than last. Frank Underwood moves throughout the story like a highly destructive hurricane, destroying lives and wreaking havoc in Congress without even a hint of remorse. You can see that Spacey enjoys playing the character, and it’s a pleasure to watch such a great actor so fully commit to playing, what amounts to, a supervillain.

The first issue I have with this series as a whole is that there is not another character on the show that is nearly compelling as Frank Underwood. I say this with no disrespect to Robin Wright or Michael Kelly, who I think are both great, they just don’t have interesting parts to play in the show. One of the big changes this season is that Robin’s character,  Claire has a lot more screen time. It’s never a bad idea to give an actress as talented as Robin Wright more to do on a show, but the quality of writing in these scenes is much lower than the writing in the main plot. The same holds true with Michael Kelly’s character, who is about as flat of a character as you are going to see on TV. How the writers could not come up with more interesting things for Kelly to play off of is beyond me. I found myself feeling bad for Kelly during some of the scenes he was in.

This brings me to the main problem I have with the show, which is that the writers did not seem to know where they wanted to take the show outside of Franks storyline. The show tries desperately to keep viewers interested by having a series of shock moments that happen throughout the season, starting with a huge spoiler in the first episode. While this is an effective way to keep viewers excited to see what will happen next, it does not make up for a lack of meaningful narrative from one episode to the next. The show is relying on too much cheap thrills, and it’s starting to feel like 60 million dollar soap opera with stars playing the lead roles. Throughout the season I kept trying to find a character to root for, or some meaningful moments that occur between two characters, but I was always left wanting. As it raced towards its, by then painfully predictable season finale, I found myself paying less and less attention to any scene that did not directly involve Frank Underwood. If anything, I felt like the show’s quality took a precipitous dive in quality around the fourth episode and there are even a couple moments that happen later in the season that I found cringeworthy. Almost all of the blame for these bad moments was on the page, there was no way the directors or the actors could have made the material work.

I have this tendency to want to compare every new show that comes out to my other favorite shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, etc. What made House of Cards so exciting was that it showed a lot of the same qualities as these other prestige series. You have an absolute knock out lead performance, with a strong supporting cast and incredible production values. What the other shows have that this one is missing writing that makes all of the characters feel three dimensional and not just 2D tropes that are only in the script to serve one purpose. This is what disappoints me most about House of Cards, and what serves as a reminder to the importance of good writing in any medium. There was an interview I watched where Bryan Cranston was asked about what kinds of roles he is attracted to and I thought his answer was telling. I kept thinking about his response while I was trying to get my thoughts together for this review. The gist of the answer is that a production that has bad writing is DOA, and I would extrapolate that answer to say that a production with mediocre writing does not have a chance to be great.

Yet, for all of these problems, I still watched the entire season in two days. There is no denying the allure of the show’s production, and the gravitational force of Kevin Spacey’s charisma. This show is mostly about the clever ways in which Frank Underwood gets around obstacles thrown his way, and even if I wasn’t particularly interested in what obstacles the writers came up with for this season, it was still a pleasure to watch Frank bulldoze through them. I’ve had this feeling about the show that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until today. It’s the same feeling I get when I use cheat codes in video games like Grand Theft Auto and spend five or ten minutes running around, destroying everything in my wake and just generally creating mayhem. It’s a lot of fun to do for awhile, to play the game without rules and be free from all consequences, but eventually it all becomes meaningless. Eventually we need actions to have consequences if those actions are to derive any kind of meaning. House of Cards does not seemed to be concerned with the consequences of it’s actions, and while it makes for a compelling, easily binged upon viewing experience, I don't think it's a meaningful one.

What did you guys think?