Politics Have Never Been So Boring: On House of Cards and the Banality of Frank Underwood


When House of Cards premiered last year it was clear that the show was a game-changer. Netflix’s first original series showed what was clearly the future of television. By releasing every episode of the show’s first season at once, Netflix singlehandedly changed the television landscape and House of Cards became something revolutionary. However, this can only be said of House of Cards’ release model and not of the show itself, because House of Cards is, plainly put, a qualitative failure.

Why is House of Cards, one of the most critically lauded and big-name awards nominated shows of 2013, a qualitative failure? Well, it’s mostly because the show isn’t saying anything about anything. I guess to be fair I should say that with regard to Washington D.C. and American Politics House of Cards says about as much as its opening credits do on the subject matter. Which, again, is nothing. The only point of view that House of Cards takes on is one that is terribly uninteresting, and that is all thanks to the show’s main character.

The problems with Frank Underwood arise from House of Cards’ narrative construction. Right from the get-go, it’s made clear that Underwood is the only important thing about the show. Frank Underwood is the disgruntled, middle-aged white male (more on that later) who is guiding us through his world. (Sometimes Underwood guides us quite literally when he speaks directly to the camera in lazily written asides.) Nothing else besides Frank Underwood matters in the world of House of Cards. Every other character that exists in Underwood’s ecosystem is just a bland and expressionless cog in his machine called life. Everything goes Underwood’s way, and always without a hitch. Now, this all wouldn’t matter so much if Frank Underwood was an actual interesting and compelling character, but sadly, that doesn’t happen to be the case.

The most interesting things about Frank Underwood are that he plays video games and eats ribs. One could say that Underwood’s ability to kill a dying dog, or go against the President of the United States’ orders, or manipulate everyone around him, or even compose himself in an old-timey way are the most interesting things about him, but they are not. The problem is that these exact things are what Netflix and House of Cards think are the most interesting and compelling aspects of Frank Underwood.

What’s exactly wrong with these aspects being the most important ones that make up who Frank Underwood is? I have a very scientifically calculated answer to that question:

frank underwood 2

As you can see in the very accurately calculated graph pictured above, there is very little that makes Frank Underwood distinctive. He’s a character continuing on the stock type middle-aged, white male antihero that the cable drama once championed. The SopranosThe ShieldThe WireDeadwoodMad Men, and Breaking Bad are all great shows with great main characters, but they have thoroughly covered the middle-aged, white male antihero and taken him to his extremes. What’s problematic is that House of Cards is built on these shows. Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Tommy Carcetii, Al Swearengen, Don Draper, and Walter White are all deeply embedded into the character of Frank Underwood (one might think Underwood himself was created by an algorithm, like House of Cards was), and what’s left for distinctiveness isn’t much. I’m all for ribs and video games, but it simply isn’t enough to make a compelling and satisfying character.

Without Kevin Spacey playing Frank Underwood and earning his Emmy, SAG, and Golden Globe nominations, House of Cards would be unwatchable. And without the prestige of being Netflix’s first original series, House of Cards would be dismissed and belong in a class of other subpar cable dramas continuing on the tired trend of the middle-aged, white male antihero, like Ray Donovan or Low Winter Sun, to name a few. I’d like to have hope that someone behind House of Cards can realize its narrative problems, but with the level of popularity it’s at now, that’s just not going to happen.

On the micro, there’s really nothing obscenely wrong with House of Cards other than its misconceived narrative issues, but on the macro, House of Cards presents huge and troubling problems for television’s future. There’s nowhere for television to go if one of its most high-profile shows thrives only by supplying setbacks and problems for new and original ideas. Netflix might be the future of television, but House of Cards is clearly living in the past.