Thursday, March 14, 2013

House of Cards:A Review

If you haven't already done so, I recommend watching the television series House of Cards. It is a new, somewhat experimental project; the series was produced by Netflix which, if you remember, used to be in the red envelope-printing-then-mailing business. It's not their first endeavor (Lilyhammer would be the first) but at a price tag of over $100 million, House of Cards is certainly the most ambitious. 

The series isn't an original concept--it was based off of a British series of the same name that was produced way back in 1990, which itself was based on a novel published in 1989--but its Americanization has put it enough degrees away from the original work that it can stand on its own. Thirteen episodes were made of the first season, all released on the same day for instant viewing. It involves the machinations of a ambitious politician who, moments after the series begins, is denied a promised appointment. He then initiates a tangled set of events full of backstabbing, blackmail, and the brute force of political negotiation to exact his revenge. The protagonist, Frank Underwood (played with sublime asshollery by Kevin Spacey, who does, as always, sublime asshollery quite well), a classic Southern glad-hander, is the bright, shining vehicle that gets the series in motion.

Thankfully, the series (at least so far) manages to stay coldly ideologically neutral; it's not even readily apparent aside from a few fleeting mentions exactly what party the main character belongs to until several episodes into the series, and even then it never really matters.

The remainder of the cast, while not nearly as focal as Underwood, are still quite well. In particular, it's worth mentioning the character of Congressman Peter Russo, played superbly by Corey Stoll; his character manages to invoke an almost steady stream of empathy from the viewer, even as he made one monumental mistake after another.

I won't go into a point-by-point synopsis of the plot. With thirteen episodes (the second is currently in production), it manages to cram in twice as many storylines, all which eventually intertwine themselves into the main narrative. But the general idea is that Underwood uses his 20+ years of experience to embark on a series of ambitious goals (ram a new bill promised by the President though Congress; get an ally to run for Governor; get his preferred candidate to be appointed to the cabinet, etc.) all for the sole purpose of getting revenge. The plots involving Russo are of interest, since he ends up getting involved in some way or another in most of these schemes. Underwood's wife runs a clean water charity, another entity that often gets involved in Underwood's plans; a former staffer-turned-lobbyist pops up now and then to advance or hinder some of his progress; and the relationship of the media and politics is explored though the eyes of a young, hungry reporter who latches on to Underwood as a source.

If you don't care for politics, the series may not be quite as interesting; while the characters and drama will still make it worth watching, some of the minutia of politics (and the relationship politics has with the media) may bore you. And there are two romantic subplots that quite frankly are executed quite sloppily and do drag down quite a few episodes. But these are exceptions to an otherwise excellent series.

Still, there are a few...glaring issues behind the politics of the series. At this point I'll warn you that there are spoilers ahead, so proceed with caution. (Considering they're all available for instant viewing right now, you should just go rectify that anon.) Politically, the series seems very true to what actually happens; bills are made with a combination of threats, cajoling, and rooms full of sweaty interns, which are then picked apart over a foul weekend where staffers and special interests cram into a room and pore over each 600 pages individually in a big room. However, a few things stick out as being sadly unrealistic in a series that otherwise does so much right:

  • At one point, Underwood engineers a leadership coup to get his preferred person in the slot he wants. However, the person supposedly initiating the coup has zero desire to do it. Underwood basically lies to everyone to give the impression that he does, and sure enough the "target" is forced to resign. I know politics is hard-nosed and full of lies and misery, but there's no way that could happen.
  • In an episode that showcases a brilliant aspect of all politics from the top down--the Peachoid--it leaves a glaring question mark. In it, a teenage girl wrecks her car while texting a crude message to her boyfriend about the Peachoid, a huge water tower painted and shaped like a peach (or ass, depending on your level of maturity). The peachoid, you see, is an eyesore for many but a prized possession (and thus an important political issue) for the local vote-happy peach farmers. Somehow, this is framed that the local jurisdiction should somehow be liable for her death, but aside from political embarrassment it makes no sense: I can't see how any governmental authority could be monetarily (or morally) bound to pay anything over a girl who wrecked her car while texting, yet the episode treats it like a huge deal and a foregone conclusion. It seems like a good political issue that is treated like a flimsy justification for conflict.
  • Finally, the sitting vice president is bored and underappreciated and so is easily persuaded to re-run for the Governorship of Pennsylvania, which is holding a special election to fill the seat he just vacated. No one is ever going to give up being Vice President after six months to run for the office they just resigned. Every VP knows they go into the job more or less being useless--the whole point is more or less to wait around and check to make sure the President hasn't died yet. 
All of these plots are obviously possible, they are just extremely unlikely and a little too convenient. (More broadly, the "new media" smugness is a little too heavy handed--yes, we get it, old dead tree newspapers need to embrace blogs and Twitter!--but there's no one glaring scene that is cause for consternation.) It might make poli sci majors like me a little cranky, but from an actual dramatic standpoint there's nothing wrong with them.

In any case, I certainly recommend this series. It's a fascinating look into politics while also being an excellent drama in its own right.

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