Dark Cynicism in House of Cards

House of CardsI’ve decided to get rid of my Netflix account because I’m just not using it. So last night I watched the first episode of House of Cards because I’ve heard good things about it. I’ve heard good things about Orange Is the New Black too, but I just can’t deal with a prison drama. Given that House of Cards is a political drama with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. What’s not to like?

Well, it turns out: quite a lot. What most bothers me about it is that the characters are not realistic. They are archetypes and not very interesting archetypes at that. So the show presents what appears to be a realistic story, but it is anything but. That in itself is not a problem. But I can’t get past the fact that it is all just an intellectual exercise that means nothing and says nothing about anything.

The show is self-consciously Shakespearean. Francis—the Kevin Spacey role—spends a great deal of time talking directly to the audience. It is very much like Richard III, where he explains his grand machinations. The episode starts with a dog getting hit by a car. This leads to Francis giving a soliloquy about useless pain as he kills the dog to end its suffering. But unlike in Richard III, we are not looking forward to a conclusion where the protagonist either succeeds or fails. We look forward instead to at least three seasons of the same thing.

What is the point of all this? Are we to take away the fact that powerful people have no moral rudder other than their desire to gain more power? There are two problems with this. First, we already all think this. Second, it is a problem that we already all think this. This kind of implicit cynicism is self-fulfilling.

What’s more, the show is utterly contemptuous of the one character who does have a moral sense. And as a result, the whole thing is nothing more than a Jim Thompson novel like The Grifters. But in Thompson’s telling, there is a kind heart. There is the idea that being a cynical bastard who preys on the weak lives in his own hell. Francis is kind of a Washington insider’s perfect politician: a guy who doesn’t believe in anything but gets things done.

Perhaps I would like the show more if there were any character that I liked. But there really isn’t. What’s more, all of the characters are there either to be Francis’ foil or pawn. And Francis’ wife—the Robin Wright part—is the head of a nonprofit, but every bit as Machiavellian as he is. That reminds me of something else, their relationship is entirely unbelievable. But then, you could say that about the whole series.

On the positive side, the show has its moments. In one, Francis is about to meet with the President’s Chief of Staff. He tells us that she will most likely say that the President wants Donald Blythe for Education Secretary. When the Chief of Staff comes in and tells him exactly this, Francis looks into the camera and gives a look that says, “Told ya.” But there is a whole lot of relentless cynicism one has to put up with to come upon charming bits like that.

The show is well made and I can see why it appeals to many people. As for me, I wasn’t even tempted to watch a second episode. I suspect that when people revisit the show in ten years, they will wonder what they thought was so great about it.

2 thoughts on “Dark Cynicism in House of Cards

  1. You’re not missing much. The basic fun thing in the show is "Kevin Spacey being smarter than everyone else." Which he’s terrific at, and we don’t get enough of these days. Whenever his character starts talking about God for the benefit of the media, it’s a hoot.

    But the show IS too cynical. Even for Washington. There should have been a few honest characters — preferably ones smart enough to see through Spacey’s bull but pragmatic enough to realize you have to deal with jerks like that. To be super-realistic, the honest characters could even be marginalized, like Bernie Sanders. It’s a bit silly to treat DC like "The Sopranos" when it’s really more like "Melrose Place."

    I understand the show is based on a British series which is probably better.

  2. @JMF – My take on Washington is that the public people (politicians and media figures) just aren’t that good at their jobs. They mostly just do what everyone around them is doing. That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for something like [i]House of Cards[/i]. But I think it wants a lot of different things that aren’t compatible. Ultimately, the show seemed more atmosphere to me than anything else. But I’ll admit, part of me rebelled against it because a lot of people seem to think it is the political drama of our time. I just don’t see that.

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