‘House of Cards’ is crazy and so is reality, so pick one

‘House of Cards’ is crazy and so is reality, so pick one

Thinking fondly on the days when these two were the worst thing to happen to Washington.

In 2013, Netflix dared to air original television, including the ballsy, barrier-breaking House of Cards. Four years and as many seasons later, the malevolent memoir of political mastermind Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is as ruthless as ever, but in a world now accustomed to Spacey’s slithery monologues and the general debacle of the American political landscape, Season 5 doesn’t make quite the same splash.

As The Hollywood Reporter’s Daniel Fienberg asks, "Is there an opposite of escapism? Get-further-submerged-in-the-muck-ism?"

If there is, this is it, and critics simultaneously love and hate it.

How bad is too bad?

I fear that because he’s Oscar and Tony and perpetual Emmy nominee Kevin Spacey, we cut him a ton of slack for what is no longer a very good performance. In the early seasons, when Frank’s agenda was harder to figure and he had to put on a different face for every person he met, it was a great performance. Nowadays, Frank yells and sneers and badgers everybody equally, including the audience.

James Temperton, Wired:

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright continue their malevolent waltz of evil, which at times is satisfying but at others veers towards comic book supervillainy. But as the bodies pile up and the American constitution bends seemingly beyond breaking point, it becomes hard to keep cheering for the bad guys.
The early success of House of Cards was built on the audience wanting the Underwoods to win, no matter the cost. As one character almost experiments with necrophilia, a roaring fire illuminating their contorted, joyous face as they writhe on their dying victim it all gets a bit much. As a viewer, you’re left in despair. Where’s the nuance? Where’s the rationale? Heck, where’s the retribution?

By this stage, it’s no surprise to hear Wright is a phenomenon in the role. Her on-screen presence practically extinguishing candles in your living room. It’s Claire’s trajectory which takes hold in a season where supporting characters are somewhat disappointingly thrown to the wayside.

A descent into madness

House of Cards has always operated on the fringes of absurdity, where murder and blackmail are among the Underwoods’ tools of persuasion. That was especially true during Season 1 — as Frank rose to the Oval Office by eliminating one impediment after another — but has persisted even after he had the levers of presidential power at his disposal.
That basic template also characterizes the campaign storyline, which encompasses a bit too much of the 13-episode season. The plot regularly veers into outlandish territory — starting with Frank having chosen Claire as his running mate — that, whatever the parallels, shares more with the frothy camp of Scandal than reality, even our current one.

…once you get past the realism problem, the idea of political and personal space blurring in the White House is a compelling one. It’s juicy to imagine what it would be like to have the two politicians at the top of the ticket brushing their teeth at the same sink, periodically expressing their love for each other and then trying to figure out who gets to speak at a heated negotiation.

Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture:

House always seemed less ridiculous to international viewers whose governments have been corroded or dismantled by goons whose brazenness is another source of power; but the show’s warlord’s-eye view of governance seems less ludicrous now that every day brings new reports of abuse of executive power, naked corruption, boastful cruelty, and bottomless greed. The slowly unfurling Russia investigation, the reports of the First Family leveraging its influence for profit, and the widespread encouragement of violence against protesters and reporters are but a few developments that might’ve been dismissed as far-fetched had House of Cards introduced them earlier in the show’s run. In its fifth season, House of Cards’ plotting is goofier than ever. But it connects with reality in a more unsettling way, as if it is somehow feeding on the unease that accompanies its debut.

The bigly gold elephant in the room

Almost certainly in response to the bullish new real world president, President Underwood’s ruthless and disruptive nature has been ratcheted up. There is a long list of things about the first episode Netflix has asked me not to disclose and I’m not going to, but the most obvious Trump parallel is not particularly spoilerific, seeing Underwood sit in on Congress. A highly unusual move for a president, Frank further ruffles feathers when he speaks in front of the House of Representatives, launching into a shouty, kind-of reverse filibuster, demanding the US makes a declaration of war. There is the President of the United States, angry, impulsive and capricious, breaking protocols and having no regard for the political system; you can draw the dots (and again with a certain immigration policy Frank proposes, and then again with frustration over his lack of press briefings).

Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture:

Reality has caught up with House of Cards’ black-comic political noir in its fifth season…It’s actually a tad more reassuring than reality because here, at least, when the key players aren’t acting like petulant children with bodyguards, they appear to know what they’re doing.

The lunacy of real-world politics and the Donald Trump presidency have not made House of Cards dull; repetitive plotting, too many one-dimensional characters and an increasingly broad and hammy lead performance have made House of Cards dull. The lunacy of real-world politics and the Trump presidency have just made House of Cards feel redundant and pleasant, which isn’t the same thing at all.

House of Cards Season 5 is now streaming on Netflix.

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