I have now watched four seasons of House of Cards and it’s time for an update (I have only reviewed the first season so far). Unfortunately, there is so much intentionally wrong with the characters and plot of House of Cards that it’s very difficult to evaluate whether it is effective in communicating anything good. Every time president Frank Underwood opens his mouth, you know that only ‘wrong’ can come out of it, because he is one of the most ruthless and cold-hearted characters in TV history. And yet we are clearly meant to sympathize with him at times. I am all for humanizing the baddies, but what has bothered me most about House of Cards from the beginning is my inability to sympathize with any of the main characters.
In the fourth season, we are given the sympathetic character of Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver), but he has a minor role, just like the rest of those who have known the truth about Underwood over the years. The entire four-year investigation into Underwood’s countless misdeeds has gotten so little airtime, it feels like one of those episodic TV shows which tack on five minutes of the ‘big-picture’ storyline at the end of every episode. It doesn’t work for me. It might work if there was enough meat in the rest of each episode to chew on, but for me that has not been the case. Oh, there’s good acting, good writing and great production values here, but it’s not good enough to satisfy me, not for a ‘cable’ show with such possibilities. Network shows like The West Wing and Denmark’s Borgen are far more profound in their political commentary than House of Cards.
I assume that House of Cards wants to say something good. And there have been some excellent scenes and marvellous individual episodes over the years which clearly make positive contributions. For example, in the second-last episode of season four, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright in an excellent role for her) is talking to Hannah Conway (Dominique McElligott), wife of Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman), the republican candidate for president. When Hannah surprises Claire by saying something in support of gun legislation, Claire is surprised. Hannah replies: “I’m from England. We think your gun obsession is madness. Will does too, but he can’t admit it.” “Mustn’t upset the base,” says Claire sympathetically. “Yes, mustn’t upset the base,” replies Hannah. Good stuff, with lots of implications for politics, for the church, for business. But not enough.
After the first season of House of Cards, I wrote: “The show’s biggest flaw for me is the sense that I am watching something hollow, something so superficial and cynical that any opportunity to say something meaningful is wasted.” Sadly, that hasn’t changed. The average episode has left me unsatisfied and wondering why House of Cards doesn’t take more risks or tell more compelling stories (the whole ICO [ISIS] storyline in season four could have been handled so much better). So I will continue giving House of Cards ***+ and I will continue watching it, but I think it could be a much better show.