There’s a sort of art whose existence says a lot more than its content. House of Cards, a Netflix-produced series starring Kevin Spacy, based on a BBC series starring Ian Richardson, based on a novel written by Michael Dobbs, based on Macbeth and Richard III, is one of these. Spacey plays a congresscreature named Frank Underwood. If Forrest Gump and Blanche Dubois conceived a child after a giddy night of reading Robert Penn Warren, Underwood would be the result. He speaks with some kind of low-country shrimpngrits accent even though he’s supposed to come from the Piedmont (or the Blue Ridge?). Spoilers y’all. The show opens with him killing a dog and closes with him killing a congressman. In both instances it’s implied that he’s putting the poor things out of their misery after each has had a hit-and-run encounter with SIGNIFICANCE. At least once, though it feels like a hundred times, Frank portentously drawls “Ah cannot ah-biyde.” You can imagine where it goes from here. His accent is the most convincing part of the show.
Superficially a revenge drama—Spacey’s Congressman Frank Underwood gets screwed over for a cabinet appointment and seeks, well, revenge—the series’ hook and appeal is really that it presents the dark seamy rat-infested underbelly of Washington and American politics. There’s plenty of mustache-twirling and scheming and secret meetings and deep-throating, not to mention the murder, but what’s really supposed to shock is the politics, in which everyone is out for themselves and all anybody really wants is power. Hush yo mouth. The plotting is operatic, but the visual style is the dour historical realism that afflicts so much American film and television these days, the zealous conviction that it is very important to get the letter openers and door hardware precisely correct in order to truly examine the human soul. As is often the case when High Definition meets reality, the result is solarized and pixelated; everything appears overwhelmingly fake. The shocking politics, meanwhile, are totally banal. Energy interests throw money around! The press colludes in palace intrigue! Hookers! Cocaine! Favor-trading!
Underwood’s scheme makes about as much sense as the plot of the Star Wars prequels. Partly I suspect this is the uninformed attempt to set a British parliamentary thriller in the world of American politics, which has the overdetermined quality of one of one of those overthought “We’ll do a production of Coriolanus set during the Iran-Iraq war with LOTS OF PROJECTIONS and a soundtrack by Nico Muhly” that pops up at BAM or wherever from time to time. The basic incentives don’t work. But largely, it’s just lazy writing, a sense that lots of shuffling around and portentous whispering will give a general air of conspiracy, never mind that the idea seems to be that if a butterfly flaps its wings in China, it’s guaranteed to rain in Central Park. Yes, people maneuver for power, and a good chess player thinks several moves out, but one doesn’t engage in thirty-seven convoluted nonsense schemes in order to achieve one exceedingly discrete and particular end. After 8 or 9 episodes of set-up, you start to see the payoff, and you say, “Wait, what?!” The magician asks you to pick a card. You do. It’s the Jack of Spades. He takes the card out of your hand, turns it over, looks at it, and he says, “Is your card the Jack of Spades?” Magic!
So, Underwood is written to be some kind of genius, but because the writing is bad, he comes across as a clever-but-middling intellect, which makes everyone else seem positively moronic, as they completely fail to perceive that they are being manipulated in the most grotesquely obvious manner. Robin Wright plays Joan Allen playing Glenn Close, who plays Frank’s wife Claire, at first a bit of a Lady Macbeth, but later sent off in a clumsy infidelity plot set in a bad World of Interiors apartment feature. Zoe Mara plays a plot device, and Michael Kelly plays that character that Michael Kelly always plays. Corey Stoll plays a character from Season 2 of The Wire.
I’m not, as a matter of principle, averse to the idea of Washington as a den of rich idiots fucking everyone and each other over in the pursuit of a higher station, but I do object to the notion that what makes for an evil Congressman is that he’s willing to strangle a dog. No, what makes an evil Congressman is that he weeps for the dog but votes for the war. An interesting story is how a guy like John Kerry goes from asking how a man can be the last man to die for a mistake to a suave elder statesman who does global PR for the architects of Skynet. A good story about our politics isn’t that Kevin Spacey cannot ah-biyde cheeldrin, but that Barack Obama simultaneously loves his young daughters and murders someone else’s son a half a world away. Well, look, I don’t mind a villainous villain either when the plot consists of People Shooting at Matt Damon Then Some ‘Spolsions!—filmic plots, by the way, that have a much braver, more iconoclastic, more unforgiving view of American power than House of Cards despite being total action schlock. What I do despise are portrayals of institutional evil being the result of individual villainy. House of Cards wants you to believe that it is a sophisticated look at the inner workings of power and the deeply compromised souls who operate its machinery, but it is a Saturday Morning cartoon with a better time-lapse opening credit sequence. If Spacey transforms into an evil fighter jet and blows up Chicago in Season 2, I will not be surprised.