Is ‘House of Cards’ a house of howlers?

cardsNot always, but often. To often, really, and it grates. And yet I keep going back to it.

Back for Kevin Spacey’s rapier smirk. For the effortless way he reveals the selfishness in his character’s generosity and the viciousness in his humanity. US Rep Frank Underwood is a pretty great character, and the show’s command of Washington, DC stagecraft — the boxed position papers, the jockeying for photo-op position, the sworn promises that are anything but — seems spot-on.

Beyond that, however, things get really dicey really quickly. The cultural verisimilitude does not extend to the traditional newsroom or its new-media counterpart. Key characters contradict their own ambitions. Plots twist beyond the point of reason then zoom towards unintended comedy. Just when you wonder if the producers are flirting with absurdism you realize they’re stone-cold serious, and just extremely wrongheaded.

I’m seven episodes, and thus more than halfway, through the first season. Here are its worst sins, so far.

1. Moist young reporter Zoe Barnes presents in the newsroom of the Washington Post (known for dramatic purposes as the Herald) on fire for opportunity and grown-up gravitas. So why do the producers dress her in jeans, t-shirts and hoodies? Do they really think ambitious young political reporters working at the epicenter of American power are dumb enough to wander into a warren of power suited middle-aged players dressed as high schoolers? Nuh-uh.

2. The home district crisis — a controversy so heated it could derail Underwood’s entire career — has to do with a dead girl who made herself that way by texting while also driving fast down a country road. Underwood’s sole connection to the tragedy has nothing to do with the road, in-car texting or even the arguably butt-shaped water tower she was texting about. It’s because Underwood helped peach growers purchase the lights that shone on the arguably butt-shaped water tower. Thus, as more than one character shrieks, the congressman “has blood on his hands!” Because of the partial funding. For the lights. For the peach growers. For the texted-about tower. The viewer shrieks back: Are you fucking kidding me? And yet that was the best plot mechanism the show’s writers could concoct. The viewer shrieks again: Are you fucking kidding me?

3. When Underwood goes on a CNN talking head show to debate a union chief, our endlessly scheming, cynical and six-steps-ahead anti-hero gets his wires crossed in mid locution gambit, devolving briefly into a blushing, sputtering moron. The incident comes with no character-based origins — no neurological distress, no panic disorder, no looming personal crisis — it just happens in order to spin the plot in a new direction. That’s lazy writing, boys. The viewer notices and corkscrews further into the sofa cushions. Tick tock.

4. But the final howler belongs not to ‘House of Cards’ producers/writers, but to the supposedly serious likes of Candy Crowley, George Stephanopolous, Soledad O’Brien, John King, Donna Brazille, who turn up to play themselves playing serious reporters/commentators on this cable entertainment. No matter what politics is, political journalism used to be a serious business practiced by serious people with serious standards. Okay, maybe Joe Alsop et al had other ideas. But surely you can indulge your neediness in other, less humiliating ways, yes? Please do.




My State of the Culture Address

In days of yore when the  Republican party held the White House and sometimes one or both houses of Congress besides, displays of protest against the POTUS, particularly when made overseas or, worse, to his face, worst of all in the midst of the pomp of an address to Congress, were viewed as a kind of treason. A unified voice was necessary; dissent was for traitors; my president right or wrong.

But in the last, oh, 12 months or so, their position has shifted dramatically.  When Obama addresses congress the R caucus smirks and rolls their eyes. During his address on health care reform they waved their own papers in the air and chanted insults. The notorious Joe Wilson wailed “you lie!” when he took issue with the president’s (and I believe the congressional budget office’s) numbers. He should have been escorted outside, aggressively, by congressional security. Instead, he was made into a hero by the like-mindedly seething.

I won’t address the issues here, nor ignore the fact that the SOTU’s, and all similarly formal intra-government speeches, are full of kabuki-like displays of respect, awe and disapproval.

Yet, the contempt shown for this president – not just by typical wing-nut foamers, but also by supposedly reputable elected leaders – has sunk to scarifying lows. The persistent muttering about his place of birth, despite endless evidence to the contrary; the ongoing assertions that he is secretly a Muslim, the persistent use of race-baiting code-words. . . and so much of it from the actual halls of Congress, and their paid  helpmates on K street and beyond. . . edges ever-closer to terrifying.

In a nostalgic mood I sifted through my Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tunes this morning, and finally bit the bullet and downloaded the “Deja Vu Live” album, which is basically a live version of Young’s “Living With War” album. Some nice moments in there, even if it’s a bit out of date and wanky at times. But CSNY really only matter to the extent that they’ve got Y on their side; and it’s refreshing to hear those three ego-driven quasi-revolutionaries actually sound like they mean it, for once. I go back and forth on these guys, wildly at times, but some of their good stuff, particularly with Neil onboard, was, in fact, really good. And his guitar playing, particularly on stage, lights those coots up like an electric current.

I dig the audacity of “Let’s Impeach the President,” which is quite the cheery singalong, and definitely not to be recited/performed/emulated by anyone in an official chamber during a ceremonial presentation. Barring, of course, official and well-reasoned (and not intern-diddling-inspired) proceedings. “Thanks to the First Amendment!” Neil declares afterwards. And while you could argue that mid-State-of-the-Union snarling and snapping and insulting by opposing lawmakers might in fact be protected speech, I think it’s important to recall that there are times and places to consider, and my understanding, even when I don’t like the guy at the podium, is that in certain official circumstances, you must show your respect for his/her office, and the vital importance it plays in protecting the Constitution. Including the part that allows you to talk shit about him.

Neil Young and the boys talk plenty of shit on their album, but mostly it’s a call to support the troops and take their lives, and the nation’s priorities, in some serious, logical and not entirely cowboy-like way. Fiery dissent is for rockers. And there’s a hell of a good reason why rockers don’t set policy (and why Rep. John Hall, once the leader of Orleans) isn’t a rocker anymore. Here’s hoping he writes better policy than pop tunes.

And sometimes it takes a Canadian to remember what’s great about America.