Saturday, March 2, 2013

Review: House of Cards

I had to take a couple of weeks after I finished House of Cards before I could write about it. It sucked me in so completely, even as it grew increasingly absurd, that by the end I was just overwhelmed. Plus, with an intricately plotted show like this, it takes a while to pull the narrative strings apart.

But I'm already making House of Cards sound better than it is. What it is is a sleek, manipulative, and very good show that thinks it's great. Its confidence is probably one of its most compelling features, actually. Every performance and every frame is sure-footed and self-assured, and they can wrap you up in their conviction that you're watching something groundbreaking. Kate Mara, Robin Wright, and Corey Stoll (who I last saw with way more hair as Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris) do especially notable work. Their performances elevate their characters - the spunky cub reporter, the frosty Lady Macbeth, the rags-to-riches Congressman with powerful demons - above their cliches.

But seriously, where is his hair? AND HIS MUSTACHE?

There is something odd about all of these roles, though. For roughly the first six chapters (episodes are listed as Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc, as though you're watching a novel unfold) they are all most interesting when they're in lead character Frank Underwood's orbit. I didn't care about Claire's non-profit or relationship with a "sexy" British photographer, and I didn't want to see Zoe the reporter's ascension or watch her deal with office politics (more on that later). I really wanted to know how they would affect or interact with Frank. But about halfway through, that began to change for me. The more Zoe, Claire, and Stoll's Peter Russo spiraled away from Frank, the more dynamic they became.

Kevin Spacey's performance as Frank, the world-class manipulator/House Majority Whip, is partly to blame. He practically assaults you with his charisma, dominating all of his scenes and making florid asides straight to the camera. A performance like his makes it hard for other characters to breathe alongside him. And after a certain point, his linguistic pyrotechnics become exhausting. I might feel differently if I hadn't binge-watched this show, so I'd only get one hour of exposure rather than...more than a time. But as I watched, I tired of his constant barbs, elaborate metaphors, and ultimately empty turns of phrase. His conversations weren't conversations so much as competing mini-monologues. It wasn't until well into the season - maybe even Chapter 13 - that I felt a real dynamism and connection between Frank and Claire. You only get one chapter in which Frank is at all vulnerable, and I think it was after that chapter that things began to fall apart for me and Frank. Seeing him tear up at the memories of his old school, which was NOT the Citadel at ALL, made everything else he did before and after that episode feel too slick to be interesting.

Also he keeps making this face at me. Yeesh.

But I think the plotting also has a lot to do with my pivoting interests. For a huge chunk of the show, solutions to most problems, and Frank's in particular, are frustratingly easy. House of Cards paints a strange picture of the Hill, where over-the-top manipulation rules, but only a handful of people are doing it to a network of unsuspecting dummies. Frank somehow manages to be ruthless and cruel to people's faces, but still maintain his reputation as a trustworthy gentleman who can get stuff done. After Peter lets a shipyard close in his district, destroying 12,000 jobs in the process, he manages to win the unemployed shipyard workers over by  giving an inspiring speech about a new bill. This same superficiality plagues almost every political drama there is, and I have a feeling it's because these dramas are written by writers. That sounds stupid, but who else in the world believes in the transformative power of words than professional writers? They believe that the right speech can convince people whose jobs will never come back that a water purification bill (or something?) is the new great hope. It's childish, and really does the whole political process a disservice.

Zoe's entire narrative also desperately needed to change in order for me to enjoy it, so that her office nemesis Janine stopped being an office nemesis. The disappointing "jealous crone versus hot young thing in the office" trope really marred the season's first half. In my experience, older female co-workers aren't resentful jerks who try to stymie their young counterparts and call them fiercely gendered slurs like "twat" in the office. Those older women tend to reach out to serve as role models, especially in a male-dominated filed like journalism. Automatically putting two women in violent opposition is just anti-feminist. Fortunately, Janine and Zoe eventually put their feud to rest, and Janine ends up being the mentor that Zoe needed - someone who can teach her the merits of investigative journalism over being fed information by an anonymous and morally compromised source.

But while I'm complaining about the way Hollywood portrays journalism, can we stop assuming that all journalists over the age of 24 just HATE bloggers? The division is really not that severe - probably hasn't been for at least 10 years now - and it's fueled more by middle-aged confusion about the internet than anything else. People don't spit the word "blog" at 20-something-year-old upstarts like the word itself is drenched in acid. Again, this is the problem with letting writers write things! All of them probably have an axe to grind against some horrible editor from their past, and he gets written into a lot of newspaper offices. (One of the most egregious examples of this from an otherwise excellent show was Season 5 of The Wire, so it's especially hilarious to me that the House of Cards version is played by The Wire's horrible Lt. Marimow, who was named after David Simon's horrible editor from the Baltimore Sun. Round and round it goes!)

And now I've managed to make the show sound worse than it is. It really is terrifically acted, and compelling all the way through. I think I'm in favour of Netflix's idea here, releasing a new show all at once so that people can watch it in big chunks. And I'm very excited for the second (and final!) season, whenever that will happen. I just hope they're wise enough to give the most interesting characters some space from Frank, and give Frank the human some space from Frank the Machiavellian overlord.

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