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I’ve been trying to figure out why the third season of the Netflix drama “House of Cards” proved such a disappointment. I think I’ve hit on the answer -- but I can’t explain without spoilers.
The first season was darkly comic fun, as we met Claire and Frank Underwood, the ambitious political couple for whom sex and murder were simply tools of their ascension. The second wasn’t quite as delightful, but included some sharp plot points, such as the journalists on Frank’s trail, and his battle for influence against billionaire presidential pal Raymond Tusk.
The third season threw away most of the darkness and almost all of the criminality (until the last episode) -- in short, the very aspects that had made “House of Cards” so compellingly watchable -- and gave us instead battles over vaguely described issues of policy aimed at resolving crises that were never explained. The show became “The West Wing” without the talky gravitas – overlooking the extent to which the talky gravitas made that NBC White House drama what it was.
“House of Cards” was always more clever than accurate in its depictions of inside-the-Beltway life, but once Frank reached the White House, inaccuracies morphed into implausibilities. To take a single example, the real White House chief of staff has a security detail. On “House of Cards,” one chief of staff is pulled over for speeding in the middle of the day, and his successor sneaks off to another country to beat a man into divulging the secret location of a woman whom he then sneaks off to kill.
Then there were the several Chekov’s guns that the writers never got around to firing. Take Edward Meechum, the Secret Service agent slavishly devoted to the Underwoods. Meechum is obviously willing to do anything, and just as obviously slightly deranged, but although we waited through last season and this one, he wound up never committing a single odious act. (Muttering an imprecise threat against Frank’s biographer doesn’t count.) Or consider the way that season 2 left intact various bits of evidence of Frank’s crimes, a trail on which nobody seriously picked up in season three. His need for fancy footwork to avoid having his past uncovered would have given the season some real spark. Instead, we see old faithful Doug Stamper and his tame lapdog Gavin Orsay (who was so mysterious in season two and so dull in season three) occupying endless screen time tracking down poor Rachel Posner, who was settled in another life, and who nobody had any reason to think was going to rat.
But the biggest problem was that in Frank’s various battles over policy, there was never much at stake. He came up with a plan to send an international force to the Jordan Valley. When “The West Wing” tackled the Middle East, viewers were treated to a slowly escalating sense of crisis to drive home the urgency of presidential action. Here, we had no idea what goaded Frank to move. We did get to see Claire, serving as United Nations ambassador, dressing down the Israeli ambassador at a party, where anyone could hear. This is what got the Israelis on board? Really?
On the international stage, Frank was outmaneuvered constantly by Russian President Viktor Petrov (an uncanny Vladimir Putin clone), and Claire was forced out of her UN post. Oh, and the plan didn’t work on the ground either. But we can’t tell whether the failure mattered to world peace, because we still have no clue what was going on in the region at the time.
The subplot about Frank’s jobs program, America Works, was weak. “The West Wing” offered serious back-and-forth arguments over policy, and trusted viewers to follow along. The policy debates on “House of Cards” were either cartoonish or nonexistent.
America Works came out of nowhere. We couldn’t tell whether there was an actual emergency, although Frank, in raiding FEMA funds, kept saying one existed. We were told that there were 10 million unemployed. OK. Why were they unemployed? Was the problem secular stagnation, overseas competition, technological change or a glut of low-marginal-product workers? The show never ventured an answer. But without one, viewers had no way to judge whether America Works was a good idea.
But that’s OK, because we were never told precisely what the program was. One moment Frank talked as if the government was providing jobs, the next it seemed that incentives were being created for private companies to hire. He told his staff that he needed $500 billion. To get the money, he decided to gut the entitlement state. It’s hard to see how that would work politically: reduced Social Security benefits in exchange for the hope of a government-created job ... for somebody else?
Weirdly, we saw groaning about the program, but never a serious fight. However, the evil Republicans did finally make him stop taking money from FEMA. In their vicious opposition to all that is decent and good, they fought for the proposition that funds for things like hurricane relief should be saved for things like hurricanes.
Some season three reviewers think the show just ran out of stories. I think, rather, the writers just concentrated on the wrong ones. Imagine if Gavin, the hacker -- and one of the show’s most realistic characters -- had spent the season on the run, taunting the Underwoods with dirty secrets he had collected before fingering reporter Lucas Goodwin for the FBI. Suppose the journal with the supposedly inflammatory tale of Claire’s abortion had been the season’s McGuffin, no one knowing its precise whereabouts, everyone (including, say, a vengeful Tusk) searching for the rumored prize as the Underwoods sweated it out. And why could there not have been at least one dogged investigator for Frank to decide to put out of the way? Coming up with a way for the president actually to commit a murder would have been a challenge for the writers, but oh, what fun for the viewers. (It worked for Gene Hackman.)
“House of Cards” has been renewed for 2016. I’m eager to watch. But, please, less policy and more mayhem. Or, since we’ll be seeing the election campaign, here’s a slogan: Let Frank be Frank.
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