A few weeks ago one of my Twitter followers asked me if House of Cards was a good show. I took a little while to figure out how to respond, because to answer that question requires a bit more than a simple “Yes” or “No.” The brainchild of David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, and a heap of computer-powered data mining, Netflix’s reimagining of the classic British television drama is an interesting concoction. It’s good in the sense that the production is slick, the acting is top-notch, and the plotlines are appropriately deep and intricate for this type of political thriller. But House of Cards is much more than that, and even though I finished watching the series I’m still not sure exactly what to make of it. It’s interesting, compelling, and often entertaining but unfortunately a host of other adjectives would be appropriate as well: creepy, sleazy, disgusting, and at times downright repugnant.
The show stars Kevin Spacey as a puppet master of sorts, the House Majority Whip pulling the strings of various beltway heavy-hitters while secretly pursuing an agenda of his own. His Frank Underwood character, a Democrat from South Carolina’s 5th district, is as slimy and smarmy as they come: one episode delivering a moving eulogy for a young girl in front of a faithful congregation, using just the right mix of smiles and scriptures to work himself into the hearts and minds of the assembled masses, all the while becoming increasingly entangled in any number of conspiracies to ruin the lives and careers of anyone who stands in his way back in Washington. Few things are beneath him, from drugs to extortion to murder, though he remains well-nigh untouchable as the wizard behind the political curtain while finding ways to manipulate his fellow Washington cockroaches into doing his bidding. It’s an entirely cynical take on DC politics, gutting the optimistic heart The West Wing and replacing it with a dark mechanical lump of coal, and after every single episode my wife and I quickly fired up Parks and Recreation as a lighthearted palette-cleanser.
That’s not to say House of Cards is not a well-made show. In many ways it genuinely is a good, if not great, made-for-internet-television production. Easily holding its own against its weighty counterparts on networks like HBO and Showtime, House of Cards plumbs the sordid depths of Washington politics like few other productions (celluloid, digital, or otherwise) have done so. At the start of the series, Underwood is at the apex of his political game, wielding his political power and acumen like a scalpel in the hands of a master surgeon. He of course has his sights set much higher up the political ladder, but to reach them requires winning a dangerous game of chess that even he might not be ready for. One of his key pawns in this high-stakes match is Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a hotshot reporter-turned-blogger whom Underwood uses to plant stories and sway public opinion through media manipulation. But as one would expect in a show of this pedigree, Underwood and Barnes’ political relationship quickly becomes personal, though capriciously self-serving, and we quickly get the sense that Netflix is aiming to one-up HBO in their quest to shovel as much gratuitous sex as possible into the living rooms of their subscriber base.
Also at play in this grand political scheme is Underwood’s wife Clair (Robin Wright), with whom he shares an unsettlingly open relationship. She runs the Clean Water Initiative, a nonprofit whose goals aren’t entirely in line with her husband’s, and serves as the closest thing House of Cards has to a moral center. Poor Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) is the empty-headed fool who bandied about by Underwood like a nerf gun with the sole purpose of helping the Democrat from Dixie reach his lofty ambitions. We get a front row seat to Russo’s doomed career both as a congressman and then gubernatorial candidate–a political self-immolation aided by Underwood who provides not only the match but the gasoline. But alas, Russo’s political corpse is another rung to be stepped on if the ladder is to be climbed, and so up Underwood goes. This is tragedy on a grand scale, and in that sense House of Cards succeeds admirably. Of course there is a host of other players in Underwood’s clever game, from union bosses to vice presidents to the owner of a local barbecue joint, and it is often compelling to watch all the various threads come together–or unravel, as is often the case.
So why the bum rap? Evaluating House of Cards is tricky because it’s hard for me to separate the content from the delivery. Despite the Oscar-worthy performances, intricate and well-developed plotlines, and compelling characters, I find it hard to recommend the show because it is so overpoweringly bleak. It’s an interesting show, but not an enjoyable show. Engaging but not satisfying. Worth watching, though not what I would consider good.