Carded

By now we’re all accustomed to binge watching. Netflix has been offering Video on Demand and streaming services since 2007, so we’ve had eight years in which our understanding of viewing our favourite programs has moved away from the format of enjoying one episode a week. It makes sense that an audience would want to follow the full story at their leisure. Chapter by chapter serials have largely fallen out of favour, with readers more commonly preferring to read full novels. In the gaming community, attempts by studios to release games in smaller chunks have been met with criticism, such as with Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeros.

Naturally, the change in format affects how we experience the product. Stephen King’s serial novel The Green Mile reads differently than his stand alone novels, such as Misery. In much the same way, weekly television shows have to hold our attention longer than Netflix’s House of Cards. If an episodic show isn’t exciting for just one week it can dampen the viewers interest. Maybe the viewer even forgets to tune in the following week. By releasing all of the episodes at once, Netflix bypasses that problem. There is less pressure on House of Cards to provide quality content episode to episode. It’s episodes only have to keep you invested for ten seconds rather than one week.

That’s not to say that House of Cards episodes could be complete rubbish and people would still watch. Some people might but most would just stream something else. But the hook only has to be immediately interesting, not something that it going to keep coming to mind several days later. The death of Zoey Barnes in season two is a prime example of a hook that made me desperate to watch the next episode. It was powerful, unexpected and game-changing. It’s not just the death of a major character, because that’s often superficial and nothing more than shock value, but this displayed that House of Cards wasn’t afraid to upset the status quo.

Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood faces new challenges as the President of the United States of America in the third season of Netflix's House of Cards.

Maintaining power is harder than taking it.

And that’s where House of Cards’ third season misses the boat. I wasn’t excited to watch another episode until perhaps episode three after the negotiations between Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood and the Russian President. Those first two episodes are good, better than some of the series’ you’ll see on basic television, but the show is going through the motions. The first episode in particular is all about moving set pieces into place and preparing for the season ahead. But I was able to watch the first episode and say, ‘ok cool’ then go away and do something more important and come back and watch the second episode when I had time. Usually, if I’m invested in a show and there are more episodes available, I’ll be calculating in my mind when I’ll have time to watch it and looking forward to it.

Another character death would not solve the problem, don’t get me wrong. There doesn’t need to be another huge upheaval of the status quo because Frank’s move to the White House is pretty big as far as changes go. But it all seems a little predictable. He’s the President that no one voted for, so of course he’s unpopular with the American people. The opposition will use this to their own advantage to win the next election, as you would expect. Even his own party want a new face, because they didn’t want him in office and they want to stand a chance against the republicans at the next election. The conflict with Russia is the first plot point that wasn’t readily apparent before the new season began.

Thanks to the format, Netflix can get away with a lacklustre few episodes for House of Cards but I don’t believe they should accept that. They should want every episode to be the best the audience has ever seen, that every episode should be trending and talked about on twitter. Consider the Breaking Bad episode, ‘Fly’. Reactions to the that episode are divided, with some calling it slow and filler, while others consider it artful and emotional. But those first episodes of House of Cards aren’t going to split opinions. Viewers might agree that the episodes are good but no one is going to label them great.

Michael Kelly's Doug Stamper turns to alcohol when Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood starts pushing him away.

The obsessive compulsive’s guide to alcoholism.

What is it that keeps them from greatness? Robin Wright is fantastic in the role of Claire Underwood, but her attempt to be appointed to the U.N. is just dull. It’s all politics and while it’s fun to watch Frank bully and outmaneuver his opponents, much of Claire’s story requires her to answer questions, make calls and try not to step on any toes. Molly Parker comes across as tepid in the role of Jackie Sharp. I liked her in season two and while I feel that her story in season three will be significant, I’m really struggling to care about the character. While the losses of Peter Russo and Zoey Barnes were integral to the story, they brought a level of charisma and the underdog effect that is largely missing from this third season. It’s similar to the effect of losing Jimmy Darmody had on Boardwalk Empire.

Perhaps the more puzzling change is the character of Frank Underwood. We expect our leaders to be relatable and to represent the needs of the people because he understands his people. It was compelling to see Frank become President specifically because he cares only about his own power and because he is the most inhuman person on the show. He’s had his moments in prior seasons but he’s never seemed more vulnerable than in the opening episodes of season three. I don’t expect him to be a mustache twirling villain but crying is so uncharacteristic of Frank Underwood that its actually jarring to watch.

This is a solid entry into the House of Cards series. A lack of new, engaging characters for the audience to root for hurts the overall appeal, as does a lack of episode to episode quality. The sum of the parts is highly enjoyable though and Kevin Spacey once again owns the role. And now that Bryan Cranston has moved on from Breaking Bad, perhaps Spacey is finally in with a shot at the Emmy.

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4 thoughts on “Carded

  1. Okay – well written and fun to read, so thanks.

    Rather than knocking House of Cards for its failure to introduce some new and compelling character (it could be argued that Dunbar is compelling), with the joined at the hip lack of some one (else) to root FOR – why not consider that the show has taken a turn to making Frank Underwood the person to root AGAINST.

    I’m not sure how far into the series you are (I am at Episode Eight of season 3 aka Episode 34 )- so I’ll refrain from spoilers. But to me, a line began forming as soon as the show ‘s Season Three Opening Episode got past its first twenty five minutes. After Underwood stood at his father’s grave and did what he did – the die was cast. No one could support Underwood after that.

    Then following the revelation of what had happened to Doug Stamper – the show switched into a different gear. The Underwood Enemies began forming rather quickly, and whether they began lining up in the hallways outside of the Oval Office, or at the gates of the White House, or even in meeting rooms in the Capitol building, there was no doubt about the groundswell.

    Underwood has a proverbial target on his back, and President or no, he would have to go. If Seasons One and Two were the stories of Underwood’s upward mobility, he’s now facing a chasm, he must now scramble, and duck, and dodge, and weave with everything he has – and he knows it.

    Mind you, I am not fully disagreeing with you – I really did not like the Episode with the Russian President – and I wasn’t impressed with six or seven either. But since Master of the Universe is not a real job – Frank’s future is ordained. The only question is whether his future comes to a halt with the 2016 elections or at another date is still unanswerable at this time (at least for me).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sorry if I came across as overly critical. I wasn’t trying to just tear the show down for the sake of it. This season has been enjoyable but not as much as the first or second seasons and I wanted to look at why.

      Personally, Underwood was always the one to root against. Pissing on his father’s grave didn’t start that, it re-enforced it. The character began by mercy killing a dog because of weakness and graduated to full blown murder by the end of the first season. He was never someone that we wanted to see as President and in the normal sequence of events, he never would have been. But it was interesting to watch how this despicable character took the most powerful position in the country.

      The difference is that, on the up-rise, he used people like Russo and Barnes. Despite them being pawns, I wished for their success. There aren’t many characters now that are close to him like they were. He protects himself. Stamper is the only one who could take up that role but I think he’s playing his own game. Dunbar is a strong character but I actually find her a little hypocritical. She gets upset at the President for playing the sides for his own benefit but she too withholds information to her own advantage. She’s self righteous but not any more honest than any other politician. She also lacks the underdog spirit. Russo and Barnes were basically nobodies, while Dunbar is very well liked and respected in her field. Even without all the back-door politics, she would stand a very good chance of making office.

      And while Master of the Universe doesn’t exist, Frank Underwood became president without a single vote. I wouldn’t be surprised if he made it a real job.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well said sir.
        I do acknowledge that Dunbar is flawed, but not nearly as much as Jackie Sharp. Which probably means that since the writer decided to have Underwood use both Sharp and Dunbar to mutually weaken the other, they simply made a choice.

        On the other hand, I’m not sure how or why Underwood chose to team both Remy and Seth on his staff. Clearly he had no knowledge of their past dealings. This decision could clearly become more important later on.

        I think the question that looms most boldly before us – is who will take Frank Underwood down.

        Keep up the fine work. I’ll be looking for your next House of Cards post.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Judgement | preposterousprose

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