Real-life presidential politics have caught up with “House of Cards,” giving the drama that helped put Netflix on the programming map a run for its money in sheer outlandishness. The series, however, looks determined to prove it can still one-up the legitimate article, an approach that has made the show consistently juicy and entertaining, but also produced questionable, over-the-top flourishes, including a few whoppers in the first half of the program’s fourth campaign. While already renewed for a fifth season, the show’s highest approval numbers are probably at this point behind it.
Granted, the fourth-season release date could hardly seem more timely than to come in the thick of the election chase, with the fictional President Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in the throes of a primary challenge as he seeks another term. Never mind that he schemed, plotted and literally committed murder to put himself in the White House; given the list of crises he has endured, Underwood’s time in office has mostly been of the “Be careful what you kill for” variety.
Still, the main criticism of “House of Cards,” at least in this precinct, has been the lack of antagonists worthy of the Machiavellian politician. In a town of political animals, it’s no surprise that Underwood is a shark, but rather that the impediments to his ascent have so often looked like minnows by comparison.
Showrunner Beau Willimon – who will be leaving after this season – shrewdly addressed that problem in the closing kick of season three, which is where the program picks up. As it turns out, the most formidable adversary Underwood could face is his estranged wife, Claire (Robin Wright), who has come to see him as a drag on her own political ambitions, and begun maneuvering to plan her own future.
The cat-and-mouse game between them possesses genuine electricity, especially with Underwood’s chief hatchet man Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) back in the fold and running interference, having survived the tortures of the damned to get there. Yet it’s also on this front where some of the smarter political insights the show has exhibited begin to break down, with Claire veering past Hillary Clinton into something closer to Eva Peron territory, if not quite Lady Macbeth.
All of that might work for “Scandal,” another soap with politics as a backdrop. But “House of Cards” has always aspired to a higher level of reality – witness its detailed forays into U.S.-Russian relations – which explains all the media cameos (hey, who knew Gretchen Carlson and Charlie Gibson could play news anchors so well?) shoehorned into the half-dozen previewed episodes.
Without giving anything away, where the show occasionally stumbles, and at times risks jumping the shark, is in its handling of politics. Yes, the Underwoods can have done all kinds of horrible stuff behind the scenes in their pursuit of power, but there are certain practical curbs on the public face politicians must project – even in this day and age – that the series periodically violates, to the point where it can temporarily burst the dramatic bubble, making viewers (at least those prone to second-guess such things) keenly aware that they’re watching a work of flamboyant fiction. Put more simply, the writing conjures drama by making these highly intelligent characters do some very dumb things.
For all that, “House of Cards” remains eminently watchable, in large part a testimonial to the splendid casting, from Spacey and Wright on down. This season, that includes classing up the joint with Neve Campbell as a new political operative, Ellen Burstyn as Claire’s mother and Cicely Tyson as a venerable congresswoman. (Joel Kinnaman, another big-name addition, isn’t in the episodes previewed.)
Given the role “House of Cards” has played in Netflix’s extraordinary rise as a provider of original series, the show’s place in history is secure. Still, as Underwood’s predecessor in the 1990 U.K. version discovered, and his real-life counterparts might learn in the months ahead, there’s a marked difference between the quest for greatness and the hard work of maintaining it.