Tag Archives: House of Cards

A season two “House of Cards” weigh-in

Although it took me nearly a month to even start season one of House of Cards after it had been made available last winter on Netflix, I finished in a forty-eight hour blur that left me as cold as Frank Underwood’s icy resolve.  I was enthralled by the concept (a limited series with excellent actors about the Washington D.C. political power brokers), appreciative of the episode ending cliffhangers that seemed to answer me the “It may be two in the morning, but should I just watch one more episode?” question, and genuinely enjoyed my between the beltway viewing experience.  David Fincher’s meticulous pressure cooking expertise and vision appreciatively enveloped all of season one (although he only directed episodes one and two) and set the tone for the series.  You quickly come to expect the unyielding tension underscored by Jeff Beal’s effectively ominous musical compositions.  You come to expect Frank Underwood consigliere, Doug Stamper (the underrated Michael Kelly whose delicate ruthlessness is one of the show’s highlights), putting out fire after fire with unethical abandon.  You even come to expect and begrudgingly appreciate the Kevin Spacey fourth wall demolition monologue motif that has become so synonymous with the show that it received satirical play at this year’s Golden Globes.

Unfortunately, after a few days of recovery last March, I thought less and less about House of Cards.  I am not referring to my opinion of the show (this remained high), but rather my after viewing consideration.  Season one did the job of telling its story well, yet, when you have consumed all of the meat off of Freddy’s barbecue ribs, the bare bones that remain are kind of useless.  This is not to say that every television program must answer a bigger, “so what?” question like The Wire does about urban societal decay or Breaking Bad does about the human condition’s monstrous frailties, it’s just that the conversation about House of Cards (and certainly the anticipatory hype of otherwise casual television consumers contributed to this belief) alludes to the idea that something greater is afoot.  I just don’t buy it.  House of Cards is more structurally and experientially the successor to 24 set inside the Washington’s power infrastructure than it is the successor to Television Golden Age prestige shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, or Breaking Bad.  Don’t get me wrong – 24 entertained me (most often through unrealistic, but reliable story moving plot twists) for four or five of its eight seasons, but beyond some haunting nightmares about Elisha Cuthbert and a cougar and Jack Bauer’s increasingly unsettling torturous tactics, there is not much to think about after the fact and a whole lot of unrealistic happenings to allow the story to reach its end point.

I went into my House of Cards season two experience with all of this in mind, but hopeful that stretching out the episodes over a longer duration of time could work to quell the relative empty impression left post season one.  I unpackaged my House of Cards vacation treat on Saturday, a day after the Netflix mass release.  Five days later, I now have four episodes left to watch of season two and although the jury is still in deliberation, things are not looking good for an acquittal.  There is a much talked about (six days is not enough time to let this cat out of the bag)1 scene in the first episode that was shocking upon initial viewing, but looked at in the greater context of the episodes that have followed, seems to have been all about storytelling convenience and not as much about storytelling enrichment.  Apparently, the character in question’s train had left the station (if you have watched, I am crudely and overtly punning), and, besides some unnecessary “C plot” cyber security tomfoolery involving what remained of this show’s fourth estate vantage point, this climactic gut punch (and it was!) doesn’t seem to be all that relevant.

Lost may be my favorite show of all-time, but I am not too obtusely immersed in Daniel Faraday’s mind to note that many episodes (Jack’s tattoos!), characters (Nikki and Paulo!), and even seasons (season two’s “tailies” business had no significance to the end game) had nothing to do with the completed story.  This is where House of Cards falls a little bit off the tracks.  Lost struggled in its middle seasons (and many, admittedly, would argue in its final seasons) because it was not aware of how long it was going to be around.  Once it established its end point, it found more focus (albeit in more of a supernatural kind of way).  Unencumbered by any television network’s system and business model and as the pioneer of original Netflix binge-worthy programming, House of Cards can operate on its own creative whim.  Why does season two feel so aimlessly redundant then?  How many machinations of the Raymond Tusk/Frank Underwood big gun arm wrestle must we watch?  How many times will a problem be solved by Doug Stamper’s magical tough guy softy influence, Remy Danton’s monetary brooding, or a Claire and Frank night run?  House of Cards moment to moment is effortlessly entertaining and quite enjoyable to watch, but my open questioning of its ultimate goal has begun to seep into the experience.  I am just not sure if I can trust that what I am watching, in the end, matters.

There is a scene in the ninth episode of season two (twenty two of the series), when (minor SPOILER ALERT!!!) Reg E. Cathey’s (of the late, great Square One TV) Freddy and Spacey’s Underwood have a conversation that ostensibly ends their relationship.  Freddy’s checkered criminal past has become a problem for Frank’s political present, so no more ribs for Francis.  I cared more about these characters in this scene, than anything that I had watched in season two up until this point.  Freddy’s daily ribs serving represented the next level layer of storytelling that House of Cards has only flirted with and one of the only relationships that I counted on to be sincere.  If the message of this show is that every relationship is a calculated weighing of the potential gain, so be it, but I thought Freddy and Frank represented something different.

In the end, Frank, as he always does, resorted to his influence, offering to pay for Freddy’s trying financial situation.  Freddy pridefully and admirably declines.  This leads to this exchange:

“If you change your mind, you let me know.” – Frank

“You was a good customer.  That was it.  You ain’t gotta pretend to be my friend.”  – Freddy

I will watch the final four episodes of House of Cards as a good customer should, but I am just not sure I will ever be able to consider it a friend.

  1. What, the guy in the wheelchair was Keyser Söze? At least I am keeping my references Kevin Spacey specific. 

Following the FOLLOWING and other Spring TV Quick Hits

I needed a break.  The last time I sat down to write my weekly reflection of The Following was over three weeks ago and I hoped that taking some time off would allow me to come back to the show (DVR storage was a friend) with a fresh perspective and maybe even a new found appreciation.  This morning I binge watched the last three episodes – “Welcome Home”, “Love Hurts”, and “Guilt” – to see if the wild world of Joe Carroll’s cult had evolved into something worth salvaging.  I discovered that the tension and its relatively well-executed escalation is still there, the curse of Ryan Hardy (don’t get too close or you will be in danger!) is going strong, and characters still make decisions that are based on actions that have little connection to any real world application of logic.  This flawed, problem-ridden serialized saga remains a viewing conundrum of sorts.  It pulls you in enough with some snappy narratives and effective pacing while keeping you a spear gun’s distance away with a premise that all seems so silly.  As pages are turned in each new cult member’s chapter (Marin Ireland’s Amanda Porter was particularly annoying in “Love Hurts”), I just want to get to the end of the book already!

With five episodes left before season 1 bows its ugly head for a summer hibernation, my commitment hangs on a loose thread, or as I like to call it, every storyline introduced on this show.  I have spent too much time with the Carroll/Matthews/Hardy clan to leave now, but if circumstances and the influx of some great television returns reduce my viewing time bandwidth, tears will I not shed.

For now, The Following is on a belabored final lap with some important (a relative term) narrative resets to be aware of…

  • Claire Matthews endured one too many abduction attempts and finally allowed her would be captors (this week it is Roderick himself accompanied by some weapons expert who conveniently belonged to a constitutionalist militia as a youth) to take her to Joe and to her (completely bored at this point) son, Joey.  For the first time next week, the Carroll/Matthews family will all be under one roof.
  • We finally (I was hoping we could forget about them completely) revisited Jacob and a very wounded Paul who took refuge at a rustic retreat owned by Jacob’s folks.  Jacob’s mom finds Emma’s abandoned lovers playing doctor (or at least desperately needing one) and suggests a hospital before daddy comes home and calls the police (Jacob’s mom is played by Jayne Atkinson on a break from diplomatic duties on House of Cards).  Jacob (“I have never killed anyone, mom!”) decides that suffocating Paul is the way to start when Roderick’s command center receives his secret email SOS signal and mobilizes the rescue party for his return to Carrolland headquarters.  Jacob arrives there with some very angry feelings toward Emma (she did kind of did leave him for slaughter).  Our momentary celebration that Paul is finally gone is curtailed by Jacob’s lifelike Paul hallucinations (Adan Canto, don’t you have some other acting work to ruin scenes in?) that are just a nuisance to all (especially this humble viewer).
  • Ryan’s investigative unit is in all kinds of shambles, Mike Weston was pretty badly beat up and is probably filming the new X-Men so is off the grid (but will make a full recovery), Annie Parisse feels badly about failing her original task force and now must babysit Ryan, and new Chief Nick Donovan seems as incompetent (at least Hardy thinks so) as his forbearers.
  • As for Ryan, he outs his best friend from witness protection in order to conceal Claire (she left anyway) resulting in some bullet wounds to the chest for his buddy, reciprocates Claire’s “I love you” (she left anyway), and is now set up for a presumed final showdown with his arch nemesis and a rescue attempt of his damsel who in many ways is choosing distress.

The silver lining in all of this: The Following is very low on my television watching totem pole.  Here are some quick thoughts on what really matters and what I recommend you check out…

  • The 28th season of The Real World (Portland!) starts tonight and in recent weeks, Real World love has been spread all over the media world.  Last weekend, MTV aired retro MTV marathons of three seasons of the reality tv pioneer (the first season in New York, Las Vegas, and the most significant and best season of all-time, San Francisco).  Twitter activity was unheralded and Real World talk (and subsequently momentum heading into tonight) is all the rage.  Vulture even disseminated a ranking of all the seasons that is wonderful for its existence, but is immediately unreliable for placing London in seventh place.
  • If you haven’t been watching The Americans on FX, you haven’t been watching the best drama (at least until Game of Thrones and then Mad Men return in the coming weeks) currently airing on television.  This delicious plate of Cold War period espionage set against KGB family drama keeps getting better each week.  Watching Keri Russell dive into her 1980s mom jeans as a Russian spy is an embarrassment of TV viewing riches.  She is a revelation.
  • I also strongly recommend Jane Campion’s miniseries (currently on iTunes or weekly on the Sundance Channel) Top of the Lake starring a wonderfully cast Elisabeth Moss showing an incredible range and such a clear distinction from her near iconic portrayal of Peggy Olson on Mad Men.  I am only two episodes in (there are going to be five), but this mystery set in a beautifully shot world of remote New Zealand gets under your skin with its potency of subject, character, and atmospheric delivery.  It is everything The Killing could have been if it had had a charismatic lead character, a competent writing staff, and sound leadership (I am looking at you Veena Sud).
  • Over the course of three days (it was closer to two) last week, I finally found the time to binge on the thirteen episodes of season 1 of House of Cards on Netflix.  The experience was wholly unique because for the first time I was binge watching something that was not originally released or intended for week by week consumption.  I am not sure what to think and am especially unsure of how I will ultimately remember the experience, but I can say that I struggled deciding when to take a break (episodes lead so expertly and effortlessly into the next).  David Fincher directed episodes one and two, but his influence on style and substance was acutely felt throughout.  It is a taut political thriller that brilliantly leads the viewer through a web of power and destruction at such an incredible and engrossing pace.  The entire ensemble of actors is outstanding, particularly Corey Stoll as an ambitious congressmen with some major demons and Robin Wright as Kevin Spacey’s elegant and commanding wife and partner in political aspiration.
  • Finally, Season 3 of Game of Thrones begins on March 31 and Season 6 of Mad Men begins on April 7 and let’s just say the anticipation and the excitement is real.  Sunday nights will be booked for the foreseeable future.

Following The Following may be a chore of sorts, but thankfully it barely dilutes the current and upcoming spring TV waters.  Dive in and trust me that it will be warmer than you think.

David J. Bloom can be reached on twitter @davidbloom7 and writes about pop culture and the NBA for Bishop and Company.