tv review

There Is Life After Death for House of Cards and The Conners

House of Cards. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

When the star of a popular TV series gets forced out in a scandal, can the show go on? Netflix’s House of Cards and ABC’s Roseanne are the latest programs to face this conundrum. Kevin Spacey, who played the devilish, fourth-wall-breaking President Francis Underwood in five seasons of Cards, was fired after revelations of decades of sexual misconduct. Roseanne Barr — who had devolved over the decades from a left-wing celebrity of working-class origins into a Pizzagate-hawking tinfoil-hatter — posted a racist tweet and was instantly cut loose. Both series have returned after producers devised ways to keep things going. The results are fascinating — even though both shows end up being mainly about the void left by the loss of their star, and neither entirely overcomes the feeling that it exists to salvage an investment.

The newly named The Conners picks up with Roseanne having died of an opioid overdose. This fact is initially hidden from her family as well as viewers. We’re led to think it was a heart attack, until Roseanne’s sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) gets a call from a friend in the coroner’s office who delivers the hard truth: Roseanne OD’d on painkillers she was continuing to take for a knee injury. The news sends Roseanne’s husband, Dan (John Goodman — shockingly slimmed down), into a frenzy of vigilantism, stalking the neighbor who gave Roseanne the drugs (Mary Steenburgen, a walking raw nerve), until he realizes other neighbors were giving her opioids, too, as part of a makeshift drug-sharing arrangement that’s taken the place of a proper way to wade through the morass of America’s health-care system.

As attempts to save a seemingly unsalvageable show go, this one’s not bad. And it rekindles the promise of the original rebooted Roseanne, which was advertised as a series that would use sitcom tropes to examine the national red-state–blue-state divide but mostly delivered Fox News talking points disguised as one-liners and was no more empathetic toward Democrats than the Jon Stewart–era The Daily Show was toward Republicans. Showrunners Bruce Helford, Bruce Rasmussen, and Dave Caplan get closer to devising a place where left- and right-wing views of reality can be reconciled. The opioid crisis affects everyone, as does the country’s convoluted, profit-driven health-care system, and although the premiere of The Conners stops just when it was getting rhetorically warmed up, it feels like a decent start. And if it turns out that The Conners was just another example of a network throwing good money after bad, at least it gives world-class character actors like Goodman, Steenburgen, Metcalf, and Sara Gilbert a weekly showcase.

House of Cards already had the dramatic architecture in place to cope with losing its star. In the most recent season, former First Lady Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) ran for vice-president on the same ticket as her husband. The Underwoods beat the Republican opposition and were sworn in but still had to worry about being investigated for their crimes, which included several murders. Frank resigned, assuming Claire would be sworn in as his replacement and pardon him, allowing them to continue to run the country together, her from the Oval Office, him from the private sector à la one of his major nemeses, billionaire Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney). But Claire was reluctant because of the political damage it would cause her. The season ended on a cliffhanger, with Claire declining to mention the pardon in her first presidential speech. The final scene found Claire in the Oval Office, inspecting an American flag that Frank had burned with one of his cigarettes while letting her husband’s repeated calls go to voice-mail, then looking straight into the camera and declaring “My turn” — claiming the privilege of direct address that had mainly been invoked by Frank.

It’s Claire’s turn, all right. Season six starts with Frank having already expired off-camera. There’s no visual evidence that he existed. We don’t see Frank in TV news footage about the administration, and in official photographs of Claire attending his open-casket funeral, we see close-ups of her face and close-ups of her hands touching Frank’s, but no shots of his face. This might be a behind-the-scenes solution to Netflix not wanting to pay Spacey for continued use of his likeness, scandal or no scandal; but it still has an unnerving subliminal effect on the viewer, making it seem as if Spacey/Frank had been scalpeled out of the drama like a tumor. The exact circumstances of Frank’s demise are kept vague here. This is partly because there’s an official story (he died in his sleep next to Claire) that the public suspects might not be the real one (a corrupt ex-president croaks right after his wife is sworn in?). But there’s also a canny dramatic reason for the coyness. Showrunners Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson treat Spacey’s abrupt, involuntary departure as an excuse to build a season-long mystery.

At the same time, they’ve created an uncharacteristically self-aware and self-critical (for House of Cards) commentary on what it means to fire the star of a male-centered series and replace him with a woman who has endured fallout from another man’s scandals in real life (Wright was once married to Sean Penn) yet still managed to define herself on her own terms. Wright, who was always the show’s secret superweapon anyway, seizes the spotlight as if by divine right, changing the energy of the entire piece. Where Frank was a straightforward portrait of extroverted, lip-licking evil, Claire is a Mona Lisa whose smile might be a precursor to a death sentence. When Claire tells another character what Frank’s last words were, we assume that she’s lying, because House of Cards is a show filled with habitual liars; but because it’s the circumspect Claire doing the talking rather than the blabbermouth Frank controlling the series’ direct-address mechanism, we must content ourselves with the possibility that we’ll never know what Frank said, if indeed he said anything, or if he died of natural causes or was sneakily murdered, like the writer Tom Yates (Paul Sparks), whom Claire poisoned during sex in season five.

The world naturally measures Claire’s leadership style against her husband’s. A lot of the subplots revolve around established and new characters trying to hold Claire to whatever arrangement they had with Frank and learning that the solid ground they thought they were standing on has turned to quicksand. This is explored most elegantly through Claire’s relationship with former White House chief of staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) and battles against siblings Annette and Bill Shepherd (Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear), a couple of tech billionaires turned right-wing influencers. These and many other characters are forced to redefine their expectations after realizing that Claire has no intention of ruling as her husband did. Bill Shepherd, in particular, becomes a lightning rod for anyone who still misses Spacey despite knowing why he was fired. Scathingly portraying Bill as one of those aw-shucks Republican billionaires who dress in plaid shirts and hunting vests and constantly offer unsolicited lectures about history and gripes about social programs and big cities, Kinnear seemingly models his voice on Henry Fonda’s; but the character is a sexist through and through, treating every woman, but Claire especially, with condescension and failing to appreciate the danger he’s in. Other characters, particularly Republican senators and members of the military, hate dealing with Claire because she’s a woman who doesn’t rule with the usual macho swagger they’re all familiar with. They consider her unqualified to wield power despite her decades-long front-row seat courtesy of Frank. They’re in for a nasty shock.
“No one should ever feel unsafe in her own home,” Claire calmly confides to the audience, making it sound as much like a promise as a threat.

*This article appears in the October 29, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

There Is Life After Death for House of Cards and The Conners