Franks Underlings #HouseOfCards

For three seasons, ‘House of Cards’ has been the flagship drama for a new method of consuming television.Developed and produced for Netflix by former Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean staffer Beau Willimon, it has broken new ground for the web based TV service – landing Emmy nominations and also Golden Globes for its stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.

But while it has worn its cynicism about US politics with pride and has attracted directors of the calibre of David Fincher, James Foley and Jodie Foster, Willimon’s series has also had an alarming tendency to stretch credulity.

During a decent debut season, which charted the rise of Spacey’s manipulative Congressional Democratic Party whip Frank Underwood to Vice President, the signs were there.

There was a ridiculous storyline about a trade union bid to undermine a fundraiser organised by his wife Claire which somehow ended up being thrown on the steps of a swanky hotel.

Willimon’s drama, nevertheless, did enough in Series One to keep its audience entertained – particularly with the travails of Corey Stoll’s hapless Congressman Peter Russo.

However the drama started to go off the rails in the Second Season as the Underwoods plotted Frank’s oily path to the Presidency, committing more murder and having an improbable threesome along the way.

By the time Kevin Spacey’s Frank and Robin Wright’s Claire had shafted everyone on their way to the White House, the series had lost its fizz and was sliding into pure pantomime.

Season Three of ‘House of Cards’ has found Frank Underwood at the top of Washington’s greasiest pole but at a time of great stress.

His ‘America Works’ jobs programme is being opposed by Republicans and his fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill.

His marriage is showing fragility.

And to make matters worse, he is being urged by the Congressional leadership not to seek re-election.

It has been at its most interesting when focusing on Frank’s underlings – most notably his enforcer Doug Stamper, played by Michael Kelly.

Surprisingly, much of Episode One was dominated by Stamper’s recovery in hospital from the beating he received at the end of Season Two by former prostitute Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan).

Stamper has shown real vulnerability in the Third Season as Frank, Claire and the slimy White House press spokesman Derek Cecil’s Seth Grayson callously froze him out of the inner circle.

Mahershala Ali’s Remy Danton also has the air of a lost soul in his role as the White House Chief of Staff, while Molly Parker’s ambitious Congresswoman Jackie Sharp has shown a tendency to switch more sides than Robbie Keane.

The arrival of a formidable Presidential challenger in the form of Elizabeth Marvel’s Solicitor General Heather Dunbar has also kept the pot boiling.

But in reality, the concoction Willimon and his cast are brewing leaves a verynasty aftertaste.

Everything and everyone in ‘House of Cards’ reeks of corruption.

It is the anti ‘West Wing’ or anti ‘Borgen’ and unlike ‘The Sopranos’ or ‘Breaking Bad’, there is no hint of remorse or redemption – only darkness.

It has a tendency to veer spectacularly off course, with plot twists that are frankly unbelievable.

A storyline involving Underwood’s attempts to woo and coerce Lars Mikkelsen’s Putinesque Russian President Viktor Petrov into a Middle East peace plan seemed overblown and sensationalist – are we really meant to believe one world leader would shamelessly snog another world leader’s wife at a state reception?

Underwood and Petrov’s face off in a military bunker and Claire’s scenes with an American gay rights activist in his Russian prison cell just felt false.

Would a US President really show Underwood’s flagrant disregard for Congress in the pursuit of his America Works program and the appointment of the First Lady as US Ambassador to the UN?

Even Stamper’s obsessive bid to locate Rachel goes awry in a frankly ridiculous final episode.

Other episodes were more successful – most notably an episode about fears in the White House that Underwood may have to kill his America Works program because of a Hurricane heading towards the Eastern seaboard.

Another episode about a Presidential debate in Iowa impressed because Spacey, Parker and Marvel come across credibly as ambitious candidates.

But the overall impression is of a drama which is very often too smug for its own good.

With Frank’s bitchy asides to the camera, which were in the original BBC series, ‘House of Cards’ likes to present itself as a modern day Shakespearean tale.

In truth, the series is more like a soap opera whose writers have little love or respect for any of their characters.

‘House of Cards’ may be a cynical drama for cynical times but its relentless nihilism is tiresome.

Watching it for the past two seasons has felt too much like a chore and a bit like a political version of ‘Dallas’.

To be perfectly frank, I’d rather call Saul.

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  • tmitch57

    If the drama is over the top, that is because the original BBC series and books (which I haven’t read) were over the top. The BBC series played more as straight satire than drama, whereas the American version is presented as if it were a realistic drama. Expecting presidents or prime ministers to murder noisy journalists, whether by throwing them off the roof of parliament or under the Washington metro is simply not realistic. But it does make for good satire. Because each three-part season in the BBC series has been stretched to 13-parts in the Netflix version, the writers have had to come up with a lot more plot lines and subplots.