Not 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.