Saturday, February 16, 2013

The West Wing Without The Charm: House Of Cards Season One Simmers!

The Good: Good plot progression, Moments of character, Good performances
The Bad: Unimpressive narrative technique, Universally unlikable characters, Very much more plot-driven than character driven
The Basics: Netflix makes good television with characters who are virtually impossible to care about with the first season of House Of Cards.

When it comes to political television shows, it is hard to do better than The West Wing (reviewed here!). From the very first episode, there were characters to care about: principled people who actually stood for something. And there was a poetry to the language used in the show. It always sounded so pretentious to me to hear the writers and actors talk about Aaron Sorkin’s sense of poetry – the music to his language in his shows – until I sat down to watch the new Netflix series House Of Cards. House Of Cards trades in the poetry and idealism of The West Wing for the coldness of reality.

In fact, that is what drags down the entire first season of House Of Cards, something that gets worse as the season goes on: the main characters do not actually stand for anything. It is easy to enjoy tales of political intrigue – even when they lack a Sorkian sense of poetry, music, and orchestration – but to do so without characters that have any meaningful or apparent motivation is just oppressive and depressing to watch. The main characters only seem to want power, control, and influence, but why they want it is never made clear. As a result, there is a consistent, nihilistic quality to House Of Cards and it makes it impossible to emotionally invest in the characters.

Having hung his political fortunes on the coattails of President-elect Walker, House Majority Whip Francis Underwood is screwed over by the new Administration, who had promised him the position of Secretary Of State. As they begin a massive education overhaul, Underwood is kept in his position in Congress. More than irked by the broken promises, Francis starts maneuvering the people he wants into the positions to push his own agendas and initiatives opposite those of Walker. As Underwood brokers for power, he starts using a young journalist to expose the vulnerabilities of his political enemies.

After leaking an education bill to Zoe, he gets control over the President’s first big promised initiative. When one of his colleagues is caught whoring around, Francis uses Russo to continue to discredit the President’s nominee for Secretary Of State and then replace the nominee with one he supports. Underwood sees the President’s first initiative, the education bill, as a way to broker real power and he sets off a war between organized labor and the President that puts him in a position to solve the problem and advance. This comes as Russo goes clean and Underwood begins using him to run for Governor of Pennsylvania, a role the Vice President left vacant. But, when Underwood’s plans run into conflict with his wife’s ambitions and the goals of her charity, she sandbags his best opportunity to get Russo elected, setting off a chain of events which put Francis in line to become Vice President as Zoe and her colleagues begin digging into the trail of evidence that might discredit him once and for all!

The fundamental problem with the first season of House Of Cards is that none of it matters. The viewer is not invested in whether Francis Underwood succeeds in his political machinations or whether he fails outright and is exposed. The quest for power is not, as evidenced by the thirteen episode first season of House Of Cards, eminently satisfying to watch in its own right. Francis Underwood falls into a category that is, unfortunately, reserved for the worst of the monolithic villains in film and literature: he is a man who wants to rule the world . . . without any clear reason why. By this point in adult programming, it is hard not to have a villain who understands that being the obvious ruler of the world comes with a lot of responsibilities and hassles that those who want real power are usually smart enough to avoid. In other words, when House Of Cards begins, Francis Underwood is actually in the ideal position for one who has the stated goals he has: he is the power behind the throne, the manipulator who truly runs the country while others take credit for it. So, why does he upset that for the title and being the target when he starts with the power and the relative safety of having no one gunning for him? The first season does not make that at all clear and that is frustrating; it feels far less sophisticated than the rest of the show attempts to be.

As for the “stated goals” of Francis Underwood, that is another serious problem with the first season of House Of Cards. While House Of Cards avoids the annoying conceit of voiceovers to deliver exposition, frequently Francis Underwood speaks directly to camera to tell the viewer his thoughts, explain the plot machinations, or sermonize on the themes of the episode. I am of the mind that if viewers are smart enough to appreciate the dark political machinations of House Of Cards, they should be able to “get” what is going on and understand that Francis is just playing everyone for his own reasons.

But that, too, is a serious problem with having Francis be an strangely apolitical character, despite using politics as his means to power. Francis completely embodies the old Will Rogers idea of being a Democrat and, therefore, not belonging to an organized political party: House Of Cards has Francis fighting his own people. The adversary in House Of Cards is always other Democrats and that makes Francis Underwood pretty much the worst, most short-sighted Democrat of all time. How he is even considered a Democrat – other than having a swinger relationship with his wife and a past homosexual relationship with a friend in the military – is one of the greatest mysteries of the season. He does not stand for the environment, he does not stand for workers rights, and he is distinctly anti-labor. How is Francis Underwood a Democrat?! [This may be a deficiency in that House Of Cards is based on a UK work and if it is, it represents a severe problem with adapting the British series for the United States – in other words, the Executive Producers failed to actually adapt it to the U.S. political landscape.]

Despite the severe deficiencies in the characters, there are some admirable aspects of House Of Cards. Francis Underwood and his wife, Claire, have a generally mature relationship. They talk about their plans, their machinations; they are the original power couple. They are honest (at the outset) about their affairs and they see their affairs and they way they manipulate the emotions of others as a means unto their own ends.

Unfortunately, some of the characters are not as well-defined. Doug Stamper, especially, is a problematic character. Stamper is Francis’s right-hand man and he is the executor of Francis’s will and many of his plans. But, he is also a character who is presented without a soul. Is he a recovering alcoholic? Maybe. His alcoholism comes up only in the context of Russo and is used to get Russo into meetings. Was he an alcoholic before that? Maybe. But, knowing Francis, it seems equally possible that Stamper simply plays as a man in recovery in order to play and monitor Russo. After all, it seems deeply troubling that an addict in recovery would be willing to entrap a man who has been flying on the straight and narrow, using his vices, only to advance the next temporary plan of his boss. Similarly, one of Stamper’s closest-to-redeeming actions is to take in Russo’s prostitute, Rachel. After preventing Rachel from continuing to extort Russo, Underwood and himself, he goes to great lengths to rehabilitate the girl. Yet, when it is convenient, he pushes her right back into that role and she willingly goes along with it.

No, there are no good characters in House Of Cards that the viewer will want to root for the whole season. (Peter Russo actually becomes the character viewers want to see go clean and survive, arguably because he seems to be on the road for redemption and the viewer wants to see him get out from under Underwood’s thumb!)

In the first season, the essential characters in House Of Cards are:

Francis Underwood – Ruthless and efficient, he is deeply upset by being passed over and decides to become the true power behind the new Administration. As such, he sandbags the President’s first Secretary Of State nominee and gets his ally installed in his place. He then takes control of the Education Bill in order to imperil and then save the Presidency. He orchestrates Peter Russo’s gubernatorial campaign and, adapting to his wife sandbagging him on that, creates a situation that will allow him to advance further up the political ladder,

Claire Underwood – Approaching menopause, she runs the Clean Water Initiative, a non-profit whose finances have been dependent upon money coming from a corporate interest Francis arranged. But when SanCorp’s goals and the Clean Water Initiative’s diverge, Francis risks some political capital during the teacher’s strike to help. But, when his help is not sufficient, Claire goes to Remy behind Francis’s back and pursues her own agenda. That causes a rift between her and Francis, which leads her back into the arms of a photographer who has long loved her,

Zoe Barnes – A young journalist for The Washington Herald, she is eager to get work in print. She starts using Francis for access to get dirt on politicians to publish. Francis passes juicy stories through her and uses her to ruin his political enemies. After she leaves the newspaper and starts working for the online newsmagazine Slugline, she and Francis experience both personal and professional torsion. Unwilling to be controlled by Francis, she strikes out on her own and starts to aid her friend and co-worker, Janine, in creating the paper trail that might ruin Francis,

Doug Stamper – Francis’s right hand man, he executes Francis’s will,

Peter Russo – A drug addict and whoremonger, he is pulled over with a prostitute one night. Francis sees Russo’s weakness as a way to manipulate the Congressman and rescues him . . . for a price. After turning his life around, he begins to run for Governor of Pennsylvania, but when he begins to strike out on his own and tries to make his own deal with SanCorp, he is cut loose by Francis,

Christina Gallager – Russo’s most loyal ally, she seems to genuinely love him despite his faults. After taking a job with the Speaker Of The House, she is lured back into Russo’s life as his campaign manager,

Linda Vasquez – The President’s Chief Of Staff, she owes her job to Francis. Her son fails to get into Stanford, which Francis is able to manipulate in order to keep her owing him favors,

and Remy Danton – The protégé of Francis, he now works in the private sector for SanCorp. From there, he exerts influence over almost as many members of Congress as Francis does! He displays independence from Francis and also seems to know and understand all of Francis’s plans and machinations.

On the acting front, House Of Cards is very good, though it is playing with a stacked deck. With the main cast including the likes of Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and Mahershala Ali, it would be hard for the cast not to perfectly embody each of the characters they play. In fact, the only note on acting worth making is on the casting of Michael Gill. Gill plays President Walker and he might well be the least convincing American President on television in years. Characters playing the U.S. President have to have some ability to portray a realistic gravitas that makes it plausible that they could have ascended so high; Gill utterly fails to do that. Even Dan Ziskie’s Vice President Matthews is much more plausible as the former governor of Pennsylvania.

As it stands, House Of Cards is entertaining, but in a soap opera way. If Netflix stops streaming it and puts it on DVD, it will not be a must-buy the way The West Wing was.

For other works with Kate Mara, please visit my reviews of:
Peep World
Iron Man 2
Zoom: Academy For Super Heroes
Brokeback Mountain


For other television reviews, please be sure to check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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