"There are two types of vice presidents: doormats and matadors," says House of Cards' antihero Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in one of his fourth-wall-breaking asides. "Which one do you think I intend to be?"
Frank's hambone confidence would answer that question even if we hadn't already watched him creep up the ladder of influence in season one. Now ensconced as the second most powerful man in America, he's uniquely positioned to do harm to anyone who dares obstruct, cross, or ignore him. His schemes are so vile that not even the other serpents in Washington's snake pit can sense the true depth of his viciousness. Viewers get off on Frank's near-omnipotence the way audiences at action films get off on the sight of one small guy killing ten huge goons with his bare hands while sustaining two bruises and a scratch.
David Fincher's remake of the British series, which returns to Netflix today, is nearly useless when it comes to illuminating the particulars of U.S. politics. In the first four episodes previewed for critics, I counted maybe four moments between politically connected characters that felt attuned to the emotional lives of actual humans in the actual American capital on the actual planet Earth. But then, what political series, past or present, has ever cared about policy-wonk realism? I mean, besides The West Wing, sometimes? Recent TV has returned to D.C. political gamesmanship time and again, but it's almost for the gamesmanship rather than the politics. Besides NBC's short-lived sitcom 1600 Penn and USA's miniseries Political Animals, there's Amazon’s Alpha House, HBO's Veep, and ABC's Scandal (the first two are cynical farces, the third a nightmare soap). We've also slogged through a military-industrial version of a political series on Showtime's Homeland, which drops post-9/11 metaphors into its stew of conspiracy mongering and doomed love.
All of these shows touch on issues, legislation, or scandals drawn from life, but glancingly, and never for long. They feel like deeply cynical studies of "power" generally, and they could be taking place anywhere. That's why writer-producer Armando Ianucci, the architect of Veep, could relocate his theoretically very British brand of satire to Washington without much fuss, and it's why House of Cards could remake itself as a wicked Yankee potboiler with equal ease. Despite Cards' mostly hushed and solemn tone, which suggests we're seeing drama of great depth and nuance, it's an unabashed power fantasy with a villain as hero. Season two briefly makes it seem as though Frank is going to spend the rest of his career trying to cover up the murder-by-wagon-fall of Congressman Peter Russo (Cory Stoll), then cauterizes any worry Frank might have, the better to concentrate on fresh schemes. There's a maybe-related story line, wherein Washington Herald editor Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus) goes spelunking for incriminating information on Frank in the "Deep Web," but it soon spirals into Parallax View/Conspiracy Theory–style technological paranoia; toward the end of episode four, viewers might be reminded of Homeland, and not in a good way.
The show name-checks real presidents, including John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, but like most political series, it's unfolding in a parallel universe. For the most part, the series seems to owe more to film noir, The Godfather pictures, and Game of Thrones. Even daylight scenes feel as if they're taking place on the edge of night (maybe it's the fogginess of the images), while the interiors are all crisp shadows and orange-brown light that might as well be emanating from torches. This series makes the White House look so creepily labyrinthine that you wouldn't be surprised if the narrator opened a trap door beneath his desk and tossed meat to a minotaur. Several events in the first four episodes attain what a friend of mine once approvingly labeled "maximum ludicrosity." There's a very dramatic "live" TV interview that appears to go on for hours (with real-life TV journalist Ashleigh Banfield, a cable news "brand" showcased as awkwardly here as the product placement for Dunkin' Donuts, Loews, and Stella Artois). A major character commits one particularly shocking act in public that would seem impossible to pull off without immediate exposure and punishment.
The Underwood marriage, meanwhile, evolves with Frank's promotion. Claire (Robin Wright) quits her stewardship of a nonprofit to concentrate on being Second Lady, and reveals a long-withheld, very troubling biographical fact to Frank. This last bit (about which I'm being purposefully vague) is the most satisfying subplot in the first four episodes, because it challenges both Underwoods, forcing Frank to come to terms with the limits of his own power, and making Claire struggle with whether to excavate old miseries or let them stay buried. Like the marvelous scenes in which Frank and his new majority whip (Deadwood's Molly Parker) bully, seduce, nag, and trick legislators into voting to raise the federal retirement age, the one-on-one conversations between Claire and Frank are pleasantly irksome. They suggest that House of Cards could be every bit as involving if it scaled things down a notch, and concentrated on personal dynamics and lower-stakes political dramas rather than having Frank carry on like a James Bond villain (or John Doe from Se7ven) all the time.
But then it wouldn't be House of Cards; in fact, it'd probably have gotten canceled after one season. I nitpick House of Cards only because it carries itself with a magisterial swagger, as if it's somehow more sophisticated and altogether respectable than Scandal, a similar but vastly less pretentious drama that's even more absurd on a plot level and yet filled (improbable as it might seem) with much richer, more emotionally complex characters. But it seems churlish to get hung up on matters of tone when discussing a series as involving as this one. The fourth hour immediately went on my list of the year's best drama episodes; at least half of it is eye-rollingly silly, but the other half is magnificent. Just when you think the Underwoods can be written off as comic strip political cousins of the Macbeths, they do or say something that's genuinely moving, and that makes you realize they have hearts after all, even though they're probably tiny and ice-cold, and only beat for one another.