Friday, April 19, 2024

House of Cards Just Doesn’t Work Anymore

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About a week after Season 5 of House of Cards dropped on Netflix, I sat down with my family with quite a bit of excitement. Politics had become a little bit of a constant waking nightmare at that point, so we were very excited to jump back into one of our favorite shows that would no doubt remind us that, hey, it could be a lot worse. At the end of the first episode, I…just didn’t care anymore.

Nothing interested me, even though by all logic it should have! A former congressman President demanding the floor of a congressional hearing and parlaying that to further his own agenda while managing a re-election campaign with his wife as the Vice President, which they managed to pull off by manipulating the ever-loving-hell out of the DNC? And said President still recovering from an assassination attempt made by a reporter driven mad by the fact that he couldn’t prove that the President straight-up murdered a friend of his? A nationwide manhunt for a domestic terrorist who decapitated a beloved husband and father on live television as a direct result of the President’s actions, thus making him kinda responsible for the murder which hey gets called out on by the man’s daughter during the funeral service? It’s all meaty, juicy stuff!

Yet, it did nothing for me, so obviously I had to figure out why that was. What changed? What was so different about Season 5 compared to everything else? I discussed this with Kylie, who had stopped watching after Season 2, and we came to the conclusion that…well, I’d rather not beat the decomposing horse carcass but yeah it’s basically Trump’s fault. Not specifically him, but rather all of the things happening around him. And to him. And for him. And what the people around him are doing, did and will go on to do.

Culture shifted in a huge tremendous big enormous palpable way and there just isn’t any coming back from it. At least, not for House of Cards.

When Netflix’s adaptation of the limited BBC series House of Cards first showed up, I was in love with it. Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood felt like a modern super-villain in the best of ways, and his wife Claire, portrayed by the always fantastic Robin Wright, made them into a power couple that sort of took that term way too literally. The political intrigue was enhanced just enough to the point where it all seemed both beyond what could reasonably happen in reality (despite the fact that the show constantly predicted real events) and yet grounded enough where you had to take a moment and consider whether or not it wasn’t totally plausible. It didn’t start out as a show that was grimdark for the sake of being grimdark, nor was it trying to be.

As the series progressed, things inevitably got more complicated, and some plotlines became hit or miss, but at the same time, there was a lot of attention called to legitimate issues that got barely any press, if at all. We later found that Underwood was bisexual, and that he and Claire had an open marriage in which they at one point brought their good friend and Secret Service agent Edward Meechum into their bedroom on numerous occasions. And that was kind of awesome, since his sexuality had literally nothing to do with the fact that he was basically a monster. Point is, House of Cards was a pretty great show, even if they made Claire ineffectual and whiny for no reason during Season 3, and avoided calling ISIL by name but instead went with a domestic expy dubbed ICO in Season 4.

I get that they wanted to focus more on domestic terrorism but this is really hard to take seriously.

The entire show was built on a foundation of heightened reality (though how heightened it actually was remains uncomfortably unclear), and for the most part it did succeed…for the first four seasons. See, between the release of Season 4 and Season 5, there was this thing that happened. You might’ve missed it; it was pretty obscure and the media didn’t cover it a whole lot: the final stretch of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and everything after it. Funnily enough, there was even an interview before the election proper where Kevin Spacey said that, if it were Frank Underwood against Trump in an election, Trump would  “…never make it to election day”. Because he’d have him killed, you see.

Spacey would go on to say, repeatedly, that their show doesn’t go far enough in its political paralleling of the world. And I think that’s the real heart of it. House of Cards never really upped the ante in the way in which it operates; it’s still extremely well-produced and, for the most part, well-written. There is a sense of purpose and logic, regardless of how unhinged or insane the actual motivation is, for each moment. A great example is that both the DNC and the GOP in House of Cards actually…operate with clear policies, ideologies and stances on particular issues. That was already quite a stretch from reality even before the 2016 Election, but it was far easier to suspend my disbelief back then. 

I know this goes against pretty much everything when it comes to good narrative design, but at the moment the world is in this constant state of “you can’t make this shit up”…and House of Cards can’t compete with storylines you literally cannot make up. Because you can’t make this shit up. If you did, it’s terrible, lazy writing. None of what’s happening right now, with the…you know, I was going to list a bunch of things here, but to be honest if I started I wouldn’t be able to stop writing for a full week. Shit’s fucked, and I’m confident that you yourself are fully aware on which specific aspect of all that shit is the most fucked in your personal opinion. One of my “favorites” is the whole “Russia performed one of the single most explicit acts of war possible that didn’t result in nuclear annihilation only because it happened after 1991”.

But yeah, all of it is more or less gibberish compared against convention. I’ve been making jokes since the election about how we should have pity for the documentary filmmakers, screenwriters and historians who will have the insane duty of trying to catalog this period of history for future generations in a way that doesn’t make everyone, even the people who lived through it, turn around and say “oh come on that’s ridiculous.” But here’s explicit proof of that already happening, in a way.

House of Cards doesn’t work anymore because our current political reality is so far beyond logic and reason that anything attempting to satirize is an exercise in futility. It’s literally Poe’s Law in action of every second of every day: it is impossible to create a parody of extreme views so obviously exaggerated that it cannot also be mistaken as the real thing.

He was the Majority Whip as a Congressman, and a terrifyingly effective one. So yeah, that’s not hot air.

In other words, it reminds the core House of Cards audience far too much of, ironically enough, the Obama administration. Netflix’s House of Cards was initially written and conceived during Former President Barack Obama’s term. At the time, things were, you know, pretty okay for the average American.

Don’t get me wrong, it was far from perfect and there were some pretty nasty missteps with—nope not the point of this article. Brass tacks: Things were mostly okay under Obama, and while mostly okay is not ideal, it was quite serviceable. The ACA might’ve been passed as a gutted Frankenstein’s monster of a bill by the time Obama actually got to sign it into law but—sorry, doing it again. Just—things weren’t insane when Obama was in office. That should be your takeaway from this.

Not that you needed a reminder, but still that’s sorta the largest problem. Even more so than the actual content of House of Cards. It’s a product of its time, and in so many ways that’s scary because the time it’s a product of has an almost concrete end date. That’s not how culture is supposed to work! Under Obama, this show made sense. It was, well, spooky and fun to watch. Even if things similar to this were happening in Congress, we certainly didn’t know about it, and we were able to distance ourselves from the narratives because it was so blatantly a political thriller.

Except, it’s not a political thriller anymore. It’s barely even a thriller. House of Cards is like that “edited-for-content” TBS (or I guess TNT for this case?) version of a non-basic cable show or R-rated movie you find yourself watching reruns of on a Thursday night. Would be kinda nice to live in that reality, though. Frank Underwood may be a power hungry monster, and it’s not like Claire is really any better, but there’s one thing, one indisputable aspect of who they are and what they are that makes me think this: they’re extremely competent.

Also, they’re not racist? Like at all? Or prejudiced in any way outside of thinking that the “American people don’t know what’s best for them” (they’re not entirely wrong) because they do actually care about the citizens they represent even if their end goal is more power? All things considered, that all seems…pretty damn serviceable.

Underwood/Underwood 2020, I guess.

Images courtesy of Netflix

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