For the third year in a row, I binged all thirteen episodes of the new House of Cards season. To be entirely honest, it’s not my sense of fandom that motivates me to do this. It began as a desperate desire not to be left behind the zeitgeist, and has transformed into a kind of doting tradition I still don’t quite understand. Watching a film longer than 100 minutes always irks me, but somehow I’m comfortable eating Ramen and laying on my stomach for 10+ hours while Kevin Spacey does a glorified Foghorn Leghorn impersonation.
Early reviews seemed of the consensus that Cards S3 started off extraordinarily slow, and while I can attest that this is generally true, it’s not the real problem with the show. Every season thus far is methodically paced. It feels slow when you’re bingeing, but it’s more exciting in retrospect because you condense the narrative in your mind to a handful of dope turns and reveals. The difference between this and prior seasons is in the tone of the show. Quite simply, the first two seasons of Cards was, at its best, a garbage TV show, and this new season puts serious effort into taking itself more seriously.
I’m going to try not to get too deep into spoilers and stuff, since not every person got into sweatpants for the long haul on Friday. I acknowledge many of you have lives, and are healthily consuming this series in more digestible bites. That said, this transformation of tone is very curious to me.
For one, I never imagined this show making it to a third season. The two prime elements that made this series so appealing in the first place (David Fincher’s direction and Kevin Spacey’s lead performance) couldn’t co-exist forever. Fincher left, and Spacey slowly devolved into a parody of himself. The show never felt like it had an intricately plotted map to follow, so many of the narrative’s pulpy machinations felt like Beau Willimon and his writing team would eventually script themselves into a corner and that would just be that. Making Frank Underwood the President seemed the perfect way to fuck yourself over, because once your manipulative sociopath protagonist is in the Oval Office, you greatly limit yourself as a storyteller. It’s like when Tom Clancy wrote Jack Ryan into the White House at the end of Debt of Honor; there’s only so much danger and intrigue your hero can get into when he’s surrounded by a security detail and insulated by an enormous staff.
Now, Underwood becoming President opens the doors to a lot of interesting narrative possibilities, but few of those possibilities gel particularly well with what won fans over the in the first place. We’ve already had The West Wing. Nobody was into House of Cards for the politics. It was the sex, murder, and pulp/soap elements of the story that won us over. These extrareal transgressions represented tawdry metaphors for the kind of despicable duplicity we all know fuels IRL political manuevering. By taking part in this ridiculous, trashy approximation of Beltway intrigue, we reduce our real world leaders to the Reality TV degenerates we, in our hearts, know them to be, and get to enjoy some of the more puerile elements of prime time television.
Season 3 accepts that the noirish suspense of whether or not Underwood will be caught and made to pay for his crimes is unsustainable with the direction in which they’ve taken the series. By neutralizing many of the white hats who wanted to bring Underwood down and choosing instead to pit him against other villains, like Gerald McRainey’s Raymond Tusk, Season 2 set up a far more depressing status quo. Instead of wondering which dangling plot thread will return from the past to damn Underwood for his crimes, Season 3 is about the very pedestrian drama of Actually Having To Be President.
WHICH IS FINE.
Watching Willimon give in to his inner Sorkin isn’t an altogether unpleasant experience. Without spoiling key plot points, this change of tenor allows for the show to explore some of the real world complexities of politics, gender issues, and some surprisingly resonate themes of balancing work and life. It tries very hard to be a “real” show and largely succeeds, but that’s just not what we’re here for. We want to see Frank Underwood throw reporters in front of trains and psychologically destroy his minions. You don’t want the third season of Hannibal to be about the logistic difficulties of being a serial killer on the run, right? Why do we need the depressing realities of Underwood trying to pass employment legislation?
More to the point, what was so wrong with staying trashy? This new season feels like Jerry Springer masquerading as Charlie Rose. That comparison is an exaggeration, but less so than you might imagine. In the golden age of the prestige television drama, there’s a certain premium on being of the same caliber as Breaking Bad or The Wire, and in that quiet elitism we’ve maybe forgotten the diversionary power of watching the teevee (even if it’s on Netflix). This is why Fox’s Empire is so baffling in its popularity.
A recent episode review over at AV Club said of Empire that its head writer Danny Strong “has so bought into the idea of creating television for the Twitter age…” and that is true. It’s a series tailor-made to be consumed en masse by a voracious viewing audience who gobbles it up in episodic chunks at the same time every week. This may sound reductive, but that kinda used to be the point of television. I love more serious serialized storytelling just as much as the next guy, but not every show needs to be a groundbreaking, novelist’s approach to television. Some shows should exist for the water cooler, to be quoted, to be luxuriated in.
That’s why people dug House of Cards so much in the first place. It was trashy as fuck underneath Fincher’s icy stylistics. It had substance, but that was almost an afterthought. Having marquee names like Fincher and Spacey on hand helped to lend an air of prestige, but if we’re being honest, House of Cards was always just a slightly more believable Scandal. That particular DC-set political drama embraced its soap operatics early and often, leading it become the ratings juggernaut it is today. If suddenly Olivia’s relationship with Fitz took on a new and interesting dynamic, their scenes playing out like moments from an Ingmar Bergman film, that’d be cool and interesting, but it’d also be kind of an affront to its audience.
This is why I love Empire. It is kind of magnificently stupid at times, but that’s part of its charm. I have my critical qualms with it, but it’s considerably more enjoyable than the latest season of House of Cards because it isn’t lying to itself. Maybe two years from now, it’ll make the same third act gamble for gravitas and roll a snake eyes, but for now, it’s a fucking blast. I applaud House of Cards for evolving and trying to tell a different kind of story, but I question the legitimacy of such a shift.
The cliffhanger Season 3 leaves us with is a powerful one, but for honest, emotional reasons, not the base “Who Shot JR?” soap opera acrobatics we’ve come to love. I’m curious to see where the show goes next, but I’m not as hungry for it as I once was. The social media-baiting theatrics that made it such a hot button pop cultural entity may have been traded in for sturdier, more measured storytelling, but that’s not the kind of attraction that gets people to stay up until 3am on a Thursday for a new episode dump.
This is the same show that exists as fodder for brand-centric promoted tweets as much as legitimate dramatic dissection. Maybe in Season 4, they’ll remember their rib-eating roots.
House of Cards is streaming now on Netflix.