House of Cards, Season 1 (USA, 2013)

House_of_Cards_Season_1_PosterCreated by: Beau Willimon. All right, TV, you win again. Damn this so-called “Golden Age of Quality Television”! I caved to cultural temptation and word of mouth and burned through all of Game of Thrones this year, and I’m still in the middle of Mad Men and Boardwalk, what more do you want of me??? Yes, I’ve heard this House of Cards is okay, but it also looks like just another “Politics is Bad”, hit you over the head show. I like Kevin Spacey, but he can really chew the scenery, and it seems like this show will be a lot of him chewing the scenery. I’m sure this is great, but I’m not going to watch it right now.

But then, of course I watched it, because apparently I have nothing better to do. And, of course, the first episode had me a little skeptical, confirming a lot of my suspicions and generalized impressions on the show. But then—I’ll be damned—it reeled me in. I really liked it. The further it unfolded, the deeper it got, it just felt so damn satisfying to see Kevin Spacey smirk and smarm and behave so incredibly duplicitous, I couldn’t look away. I think what really did it for me, was that even though the direct address to the camera is pretty on-the-nose, Shakespeare, Richard III, etc, and it was pretty irritating at first (direct, obvious expository dialogue is anathema to me, but at least here, they make it a direct narration instead of passing it off as natural human conversation), it really introduces an interesting layer to that character. Even though we follow Frank through everything, and even though he speaks directly to us, looks directly at us, he’s still an incredibly elusive, ambiguous, inscrutable character. (I feel like I’m always going on about inscrutable characters, but it’s true!) And all of this is going on beside a stable of interesting characters and good actors and strong writing and intriguing plots (Robin Wright, Kate Mara, everybody is pretty damn good). It sounds like I don’t have any reservations about the show but there are a couple of little things lurking around. As I suspected, it kind of is just another “Politics is Bad” show, another variation of the “Modern American Institutions are Corrupt and Corrupting” motif developed so thoroughly by David Simon with The Wire. At the risk of dancing around an abyss of a long, dark, topic that I can properly delve into right now, I’ll hazard a half-hypothesis that House of Cards is the more popular, mainstream, palatable, sexy, sensational, take on the same themes of institutional corruption that The Wire did to small audiences, less immediate success, and that it’s doing so by shifting the focus away from a slow-burning, detached observation of institutions corrupting the individuals who work in them, and towards a more traditional take—immersing yourself viscerally in a (particularly well-crafted) soap opera about a few ruthless individuals who are corrupting an otherwise benign system. This show is infinitely more approachable, more sensational, more immediately gratifying than The Wire. Frank looks the camera in the eye and breaks a puppy’s neck in the first 2 minutes—if that doesn’t grab people’s attention, I don’t know what will! And of course, as the show went on, I became immersed in it, I suspended my critical thinking, and I became a passive viewer just like I would with any other show. I don’t know how much insight I was really getting off that show, and that’s where it maybe sticks in my craw. I’ve expressed this before, how all of this ballyhoo about “Quality Television” is just a big budget and swear words and violence and nudity dressing up what is otherwise just a normal, run of the mill, passive-consumer, lowest-common-denominator soap opera full of fictional characters gossiping about each other and the viewer being fly-on-the-wall to it all. To a certain extent, this show gives the average person a peek at the process, the machinery, of politics, and to that extent it offers a good antidote to the common blue-collar gripe about “What do those idiots do all day, why can’t they just do what we want them to do, they’re all a bunch of crooks, etc etc”, by showing how fucking difficult it is to get anything done in this toxic, partisan atmosphere. It shows us how even well-meaning, straightforward motivations and goals are met with a mountain of other garbage that has to be navigated and negotiated. But with all of the sensational, theatrical stuff, it feels like they’re not making a comment on politics because the politics they’re showing, the world they’re showing, bears only a passing, incidental resemblance to any real political system in the real world. And frankly, this is 100% true—they’re not making a comment on the world, they’re making a world inside the TV show and commenting on it. Maybe all TV does that, though…I don’t know. I’ve gone too long, and there’s still a lot I wanted to say about the show, but I’ll save it for Season 2.

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9 responses to “House of Cards, Season 1 (USA, 2013)

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