First Impressions takes a look at new and returning TV shows, just as they’re kicking off. We fill you in, spoiler-free.
It’s been roughly one week (and two weekends) since Netflix dropped season two of its flagship title House of Cards. That means that some of us have started it, some of us are saving it for a rainy day, and some of us already finished it. Operating in such uneven pop-cultural terrain makes relevant, spoiler-free analysis tricky to formulate.
But a mere two episodes into the second season, and I’m still going to try. No spoilers, seasons 1 or 2.
When the first season of House of Cards hit last year, we could tell that things were going to be different. Serialized live-action entertainment was mutating. Binge watching was a familiar pastime to anyone with a Netflix account or HBO On Demand for years, but this was the first time that the art itself had been created and presented with unrestrained, hedonistic consumption specifically in mind.
Last year I burned through the first season at a moderate clip, which, in this case, meant between two and three episodes per day. The experience was stimulating, but I was left with somewhat of a bad taste in my mouth. The show, for all its cold charm and political sexiness, was far too confident in its ability to dominate the viewer’s dopamine receptors. Was it really as easy as this show made it look? Am I really this weak? Or is the show actually as good as it seems?
The first season closed out like a great meal. But as a great man once put it, “Great meals fade in reflection. Everything else gains. You know why? Because it’s only food. Shit we put in us. Keeps us going. It’s only food.”
Cards may have been delicious, but far too often it felt like it was only food.
Nonetheless, I significantly revised this position after re-ingesting the entire first season recently. Upon further digestion, the show’s gleaming, albeit ostentatiously displayed, merits clearly outweigh its frequent overindulgences. The writers’ vices range from invitingly manipulative to borderline tasteless, but I have yet to see the show delve into exploitation or pretentious moralizing. There’s a line.
From what I can tell so far, season two retains much of what was great about Cards to begin with: absolutely airtight plotting, fastidious attention to detail, and a powerful Fincheresque sense of vivid aesthetic confidence. The production’s luster and polish leap off the screen at every turn, exhibiting narrative competence and technical control.
With all this to offer, it’s easier to admit that we as viewers don’t necessarily need characters to believe in, to root for, or to like. Frank Underwood as the grim personification of the Nietzschean Will-to-Power isn’t just impossible to identify with; it’s downright one-dimensional. He wants power. We get it. Even Frank understands that about himself.
It’s kind of brilliant how Cards’s writers have chosen to almost completely eschew anything but the faintest murmur of characterization or motivational ambiguity in constructing the show’s individual characters and relational dynamics, opting instead for a web of conspicuously defined interests that jostle, collide, and amplify one other with all the mechanical precision of a geometric proof.
The exception that proves this rule is the fascinating and inscrutable Claire Underwood. As I looked back on season one, it’s undeniable that watching her fidget and toy with her deteriorating humanity was the show’s most nuanced and beautiful feature. The scene where she is confronted while jogging in the cemetery still haunts me, personally.
The season’s second episode (“Chapter 15”) cements her position as the show’s most (only?) legitimately interesting character, in a brief and sad episodic subplot. Her monologue at the end highlights a complexity completely foreign to Cards and its archetypical, practically allegorical, cast of players, and demonstrates that the show’s “characterization problem” isn’t anything but intentional cynicism.
As promised, I decline to go into any discussion of what actually happens in season two. But suffice it to say, the opening episode contains a palpable plot “realignment” (to borrow a term from Political Science 101), which I think a lot of fans will wish was accomplished with greater ceremony (or, at least, creativity).
But if the second season’s New Deal is startling at first, the show’s writers are disarmingly good at getting viewers to move on. What comes as a shock is quickly an afterthought, like just another blip in the political news cycle.