You have to have sympathy for a TV writer whose job depends on maintaining audience interest in a fictional over-the-top president of the United States when you’re constantly being, well, trumped by reality.
Netflix’ “House of Cards” recently dropped its entire fourth season and by now it seems safe to say most of its fans have binged their way through the entire 10 episodes. Without spoiling things for those who haven’t, let’s just say there are several improbable-to-highly melodramatic twists. Embattled President Frank underwood (Kevin Spacey), who is by some definitions a serial killer and not to be taken at his word on any topic (including from what direction the sun will rise tomorrow), is having a hard time keeping up with reality.
The series lost a good bit of its touch for the zeitgeist of our era last year, as Frank and the icy missus (played by Robin Wright) ascended to the White House and then descended into their own personal battle royal. There was something, um, far less compelling about watching Frank Underwood, murderer and compulsive Machiavellian, shift into a statesman role, making noble democratic pronouncements to the Putin-like godfather of Russia. (Even less credible was Frank consenting to months of a biographer’s probing of his personality.)
Season Four has corrected some of this structural implausibility by giving Frank a fresh and unequivocally mortal threat — in the form of the aforementioned icy Mrs. Underwood. Having split last season, Claire Underwood, every bit Frank’s equal in the art of connivery, is now snaking along her own path, with no great concern for Frank’s professional well-being.
That, it is fair to say, is giving the people what they want. To hell with noble-mindedness, faux or otherwise. TV audiences want escapism from the realities of the daily news. They want sinister machinations, double-crossing, backstabbing, flagrant lying and the sight of the powerful revealed as self-serving cartoons, and worse.
Oh, wait. That is the daily news. As immoral as Frank Underwood is, the show’s writers haven’t (yet) figured a way for him to appear on national TV reassuring the company about the size of his manly bits; hype his brand of steaks; or encourage a Nuremberg-like salute from his most devoted followers. They didn’t take the job to write a farce, after all.
This new season — and the show will have a fifth season — returns the Underwoods to a psychological landscape on which they are clearly more comfortable than playing statesmen. Frank and Claire are designed for perpetual warfare, a never-ending defense of turf where a lethal offense is the tactic of first resort. That’s a tough one to pull on the Russians (although Frank gives it a shot), but a reliably effective talent for the D.C. political game.
New to the series this year are a couple of classy veteran actresses, Ellen Burstyn, as Claire’s Dallas society mother, and Cicely Tyson as a retiring Dallas congresswoman courted by both Frank and Claire for their very separate purposes. Also new and prominent (and good) is Neve Campbell as a savvy-beyond-her-years political operative balancing seduction from both poles of the Underwood universe.
Where Aaron Sorkin regularly argued that, with “The West Wing,” he was consciously playing with dramatic elements that heightened our faith in the country’s institutions, “House of Cards” is all about a world of only lightly varnished naked ambition. A ruthless drive buttressed by relentless attack in pursuit of either total subservience or personal destruction. There’s probably a good psychological profile to be developed out of whichever view you think most honestly describes American politics today.
What neither Sorkin or the “Cards” writing team quite imagined, though, was a spectacle like what we’re watching day after startling day this campaign season. For all his ethical failings (up to and including murder), Frank Underwood is far too much a Southern gentleman to suggest in public that his opponents had wetted themselves in debate; called someone a [bleep] in a rally or vowed that when in power he was going to “bomb the [bleep]” out of the enemy du jour.
Frank Underwood has too much class for that sort of thing.
And did I mention he’s a murderer?