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

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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.

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

  1. (Gulp) … I rather liked House of Cards! The narrative structure is lazy, yes. And no, the show doesn’t have anything interesting to say about politics. But did West Wing? Did ER “say anything” about health care? Did Friday Night Lights “say anything” about football?
    And this hand-wringing about what House of Cards means for the Future of the Medium — it sounds awful alarmist to me. I’m not ready to buy the idea that because Netflix wanted a low-risk, derivative, easy-viewing blockbuster to kick off its original programming — instead of, say, an art-house, highbrow indie-series — it somehow puts creativity on a death spiral in the TV world. In fact, one could hope that by proving the viability of Netflix’s release model, House of Cards has opened the door for more ambitious and innovative work in its wake.
    Meanwhile, I think you’re totally ignoring some positive qualities here. House of Cards isn’t shot in some warehouse in Burbank (rather, in Baltimore!). It’s visually compelling, well acted and fast paced. I make no excuses for its failings, but come on, J.T. Is there no room for a show like this on the spectrum between Great TV and qualitative failure?

    • The only reason I’m being so disparaging towards House of Cards is because I’m such a “Great TV” elitist. I don’t actually watch the worst that television has to offer (except for American Horror Story) so I’m bound to criticize House of Cards hyperbolically. But I still think it’s a C level show at best! Even if they didn’t really “say anything,” The West Wing had Sorkin’s great dialogue, ER had its great characters, and Friday Night Lights was FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS!!! What does House of Cards have going for it? It HAD 2013’s best supporting performance in Corey Stoll (he should have been nominated and won the Emmy!) but that’s gone now, and pretty looks can only get a show so far. So while it’s probably unfair of me to call House of Cards a failure, I, like Frank Underwood, have no patience for useless things.

  2. I was only able to force myself to get through the boring first episode of Season one and only kept hanging in there, because hoped that since Kevin Spacey is the lead actor eventually the show would come to life BUT it never did, really wasted my time and energy!!!
    The episode had such boring, trite writing and directing and also such lifeless acting by all the actors, except Spacey, that I have not yet had the courage to check out any more episodes, because I feel they all will be just as bad. Also, Spacey merely played his usual bitch type evil persona. I have always liked Kevin’s persona in movies but, it cannot carry this entire show, which has many creative flaws. The greatest being that the entire show is lifeless, dull, and demonstrates an inability to depict living vital human beings.

    The show actually seemed like a boring Republican advertisement; wherein, the men in this story seem to all need some testosterone and the females seem to be dried up old bitches, even the young ones, yet; the women seem to carry a bigger “stick” then the men. However, even these women are written with a lack of vital spirit, lifeless, boring.

  3. Interesting post, J.T. Enjoyed the pie chart.
    I echo Danielle’s experience with the first episode. But I also sat through episodes 2 and 3 and started to dream of creative ways of cutting my own ears off to avoid listening to any more.

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