On the perfunctoriness of House of Cards

We had the earnest, though chastened idealism of West Wing. We also had the Office-style send-up of Veep. All that was missing in the genre of White House dramas was the dark, gritty version. House of Cards dutifully stepped into the gap.

The last decade or so has also shown us that TV is more prestigious in direct proportion as the characters are shitty people. House of Cards dutifully slotted into that trend, giving us a protagonist who plots and schemes out of sheer spite — and isn’t even very good at it. This is a contrast from the UK version, at least in its first season, where the protagonist brought a mischievious glee and a relentless effectiveness to his efforts. We knew what motivated the UK protagonist, but Frank Underwood is “complex” (i.e., his motives make no sense).

And let’s not forget how “complex” Claire Underwood is! So complex that she can scapegoat a young activist for getting pregnant, that she can emotionally shatter a dying man who confesses to a lifelong crush by giving him an utterly revolting handjob, that she can [SPOILER ALERT] in the current season! Dark, gritty! Complex! Nuanced? Yeah, let’s go with it to meet the wordcount of our thinkpiece.

And can we discuss the sex more generally? I was never quite sure why I was watching Frank Underwood joylessly fuck an alarmingly young-looking Zoe, nor why Meechum became a prop in the sick power struggle of the Underwood marriage. And in the most recent season, they start to show us an actually attractive couple, bound by actual affection for one another, and they cut away before they even start taking off their clothes. Within the frame of the show, it seems, real passion is the true horror.

The first season might pretend to give us a “realistic” view of backroom dealing, but as things move on, it becomes more and more purely fantasy. Frank Underwood is going to destroy Social Security so that he can implement a socialist jobs program that would make FDR jealous! On a certain level, I guess this is dutifully “centrist,” though it arrives at that result through a different formula than President Bartlett’s impotent hand-wringing over the deficit.

For my money, the only really interesting character is Doug Stamper, the career underling. His plot arc this season was much more satisfying than any of the political pyrotechnics, and I think that’s because the House of Cards premise is fundamentally about a career underling who goes rogue. Perhaps we can’t believe Kevin Spacey as an underling, even from the very beginning. When the UK version addresses the camera, it’s conspiratorial gossip, but when Kevin Spacey does it, it’s the authoritative god’s eye view. And what a tedious, vengeful god he is — addicted to scenery-chewing dressings-down, afflicted by self-doubt only when he restrains the fullness of his cruelty.

This is where the Golden Age of TV goes to die — the graveyard of that era is found in House of Cards, Game of Thrones, True Detective… It’s as though a generation of writers and producers watched the true greats of HBO’s heroic era and could only imagine outdoing them by redoubling their cruelty and nihilism. We may not have liked Tony Soprano or Don Draper, but there was something fascinating about them, and their stories told us something about deep anxieties of the American imagination. We may have been chastened by the despair of The Wire, but that despair at least gave it a unique perspective on our political situation. The political scheming of Deadwood involved its fair share of violence and betrayal, but its setting provided a plausible reason for it all while allowing us to view the show as a thought-experiment in the originary violence of founding a society.

Shows like Game of Thrones and True Detective take all the sadism and despair of those modern classics and strip them of the ideas that made them interesting. To their credit, though, Game of Thrones and (especially) True Detective at least remember to give us an attractive, atmospheric surface — but House of Cards phones that in as well. The most interesting thing about the show visually is the title sequence, and that only highlights how workaday everything else is.

And so, as a television commentator, I have done my duty. I’ve watched all of House of Cards. I served my time and paid my debt to society. Now perhaps I can find a show that handles dark themes and atmospheric moodiness with greater subtlety — like Batman: The Animated Series.

20 thoughts on “On the perfunctoriness of House of Cards

  1. I think what finally hit me this season (because for a while it looked like it might venture into real character development) is that HoC is just an inverse of the standard ‘family’ drama: in most conventional network shows, potential threats are introduced; opportunities for the protagonists to truly compromise their values and head down a different path. But we know, through the conventions of storytelling, that the status quo will reassert itself by story’s end–threats will be vanquished and heroes will remain heroes. There is no real forward motion of characters or situations. With HoC, on the other hand, we see potential opportunities for Frank’s machinations to be thwarted, or for characters to develop traces of real humanity within them, only to be predictably snuffed out by story’s end to re-establish the cyncial status quo. While this may be ‘edgier’ than most dramas in that it is ‘evil’ rather than ‘good’ that always wins, it still makes for a pretty formulaic experience, in which events pose merely momentary threats to the basic narrative frame rather than genuinely new developments.

  2. I’ve mentioned this here before. You really should seek out the two seasons of Boss. Canceled far too early but those 2 seasons are great, genuinely Shakespearean (an all too often applied plaudit that’s actually appropriate here). Deeply cynical, yes, but goes much further with that than most, indicting a whole system–civic, media, etc. I would think you’d find it especially interesting as it’s set in Chicago.

  3. I’ve heard really good things about Batman: the Animated Series!

    I’d really like to see the Kotsko Take on Samurai Jack.

  4. “their stories told us something about deep anxieties of the American imagination”

    Perhaps Game of Thrones does not intend to reveal deep anxieties about the American imagination but, rather, deep truths about the human condition. One would think given your Freudian proclivities, a show based upon the conceit that civilization is a thin veneer covering over our deep desire to destroy ourselves and one another (plus dragons and giant wolves, of course) would appeal. (Haven’t seen House of Cards, the “American political drama” genre does not appeal and, after Kevin Spacey’s performance in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, I’m not especially keen on following his oeuvre.) Besides, given your periodization of the Heroic Era, Generation Kill is clearly the standout series—one that is both a David Simon production and falls into Game of Thrones territory (recall the final shot of Trombley).

  5. All of the cynism and violence in GoT comes from Martin’s books, the first one pre-dating the Sopranos and the Wire by more than a decade.

  6. All of the cynism and violence in GoT comes from Martin’s books, the first one pre-dating the Sopranos and the Wire by more than a decade.

    It is kind of interesting that the GoT books were near the leading edge of the “darker and grittier” trend, while the TV series on the trailing end. That’s assuming the trend is winding down.

  7. Thanks for speaking truth to the ongoing mediocrity that is this show. I loved season 1 but came to the conclusion after Season 2 that where the UK version was a satire of Thatcherite politics in particular, the US version had descended to the cable equivalent of this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IC3W1BiUjp0 (cf. http://contemporarycondition.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/political-drama-without-politics.html for a better formulation of that same analysis)

    The correlation you draw between nihilism and the illusion of depth matches what I saw as the grotesque misuse of what I want to call an “apocalyptic aesthetic” going on with the show. It feels like every scene (especially with Underwood’s increasingly absurd monologues) is washed in some sort of promise that something huge and world-shattering is about to happen, but because American TV lasts forever (Season 1 of the US HoC was already as many hours than all three series of the UK version combined), no resolution ever comes and we’re left rocking back and forth in utterly hollow drama.

  8. Good analysis. Did you read the NY Times articles and others prior to this? I can see why you don’t like True Detective. I really liked it for its cinematography and storytelling, especially the one take. But going back and rewatching Twin Peaks has been amazing. It has brought down my appreciation for TD.

    The fiancée and I watched (for me) and rewatched (for her) Prison Break. For all its camp and self-referential winking, and the way it comfortably presents eye candy for various members of the female audiences, and for having watched this while helping the fiancée work through Victorian literature by enjoying it together, I have to say it’s a great show, with an interesting working out of mainstream theological ideas (fathers sacrificing or fighting for sons; mothers fighting or sacrificing sons), with no certain way of making a light/shadow pairing of the protagonist with any one other.

    Harley Quinn is a cultural mythology actively being shaped around us. Even though she did technically just have a retcon/reboot, her birth narrative is still “up in the air” in terms of who in the culture will get to shape her identity for generations to come. Not really the case anymore for Superman, Batman, Nietzsche, Marx, Mozart, Galileo, Jesus. Ground floor of an idea.

  9. While Adam remains wrong about GoT, he is correct that the publication date of the first A Song of Fire and Ice novel has no bearing on his comments about the adaptation. Between True Detective (which I have yet to watch) and GoT, we are finally entering a phase of television history where imaginative, speculative television can be taken seriously, especially if the long-rumoured adaptation of KSR’s Mars trilogy ever goes ahead and Darren Aronosfsky’s adaptation of Atwood’s MaddAddam novels. Too bad so many ostensibly serious people are above wolves, dragons, swords, telepathic pigs, transgenic humans, and the ethics of terraforming planets. (And let’s not forget that the best episodes of any series on any network of 2010-5 have aired on CW. I’m referring to the “meta” episodes of Supernatural, obviously.)

  10. “Between … GoT, we are finally entering a phase of television history where imaginative, speculative television can be taken seriously,” If so, we need to ask what about Game of Thrones makes people take it more ‘seriously’ than Star Trek, the X-Files, Orphan Black, etc. My guess is that it has nothing to do with the setting, and everything to do with the shittiness of the characters.

  11. Of course, HOC’s characters are rather boring. I do agree with you that Doug Stamper is by far the most interesting. I also agree that it is no television masterpiece. But I think your critique misses one essential aspect of the show: the pitch. Being in a discipline where I have to pitch artistic ideas to those who have money and authority, I have a great interest in what it takes to convince people in a short amount of time. The general strategy in our time is “be true to who you are and everything will work out; if it doesn’t, then that’s your problem.” In HOC all we get is mostly superficial, uninteresting characters trying to say the right thing in the right moment to get what they want. Pretty much at every turn, a character is faced with a choice: it is not “what do I want” but “what is the best strategy.” Perhaps the message is rather simple: you don’t have control over what you want, but you do have control over HOW you get it. I think it would be pushing it too far to say that the characters in HOC’s interactions with their strategies produces new desires or goals. But I do think that the “pitch” is a central element to the show and that it should be given at least some credence.

    A note on the hand job: is it not what he wanted? And yet, he rejected it. One could read it as Zizek might: the man’s fantasy realized took the form of nightmare. Just as in the movie the Piano Teacher where the piano teacher gets with the student but realizes it is not what she really wanted at all. (Though this last point is probably mute because, it would seem, that Zizek probably gets a bad name around here.)

  12. I suppose I just thought that the reading of the hand job was just so obviously one that aligns with Zizek’s work that I figured if he was important in this blog that something of the sort would have been mentioned. But I understand that bringing him up in regards to that scene may have very slightly deflated your critique. That being said, your book that you refer to looks amazing (Zizek and Theology, correct?), and I’m very excited to read it.

  13. Glad you find my book interesting. The Zizek connection is plausible enough, but I guess I don’t think that “bringing up Zizek at every possible opportunity” is a very useful standard for whether someone is interested in Zizek.

  14. That’s very true: my comment about Zizek’s popularity on this blog was not well thought out. But I would argue that it was not my most important contribution to the thread. I suppose I was just hoping for an analysis of House of Cards that went beyond the disqualification of boring characters. Perhaps you might object: why make a show with boring characters more exciting by way of interesting theory? In that sense, I would probably agree with you. And If I was doing work on theory, then, yes, I would probably find HOC useful for providing examples to support a Zizekian theory rather than suggesting that the show is an intelligent production. In other words, the level of interest the show attracts is dependent upon the level with which you engage it.

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