TV Review: ‘House of Cards’ Has Strong Performances but Weak Narrative

Political drama on television always seems to have a shelf life. “The West Wing” was the best show on television for four seasons, and then cratered to Earth. “The Newsroom” and “Scandal” had some of the best performances on TV but faltered as the years went on. Yet “House of Cards” has continued to excite audiences five years into its run. While season 3 was a dip in quality, season 4 was seen by many as a return to form. Season 5 was one that was highly anticipated, with terrorism and an election on the horizon.

Unfortunately, what we got in season 5 does not live up to the hype. It is not due to the performances, the cinematography, or the feel of the show. Instead, it is the narrative and writing of the show that is hard to grapple with. On one hand, the show may feel even more pessimistic in light of our current political climate. It’s hard to separate the fiction from the real world when there are very close similarities between the two. However, to even consider the show the least bit authentic would be ludicrous. Despite some fun cameos from the journalists who populate CNN, MSNBC, and others, the show may have stretched reality a bit too far this time around.

The season picks up in the aftermath of where the last season concluded, dealing with the aftermath of home-grown terrorism. The terrorist organization is a looming threat but feels like an incomplete one for the majority of the season. Meanwhile, one the NSA hackers that Frank Underwood (Spacey) employs, helps sabotage the election to ensure an Underwood victory. Russia is also involved in some capacity, and threats from the ISIS-like terrorist plot force an election to essentially have a revote for only the state of Ohio.

There is far more going on in the season, but those plots take up the first 8 episodes. That is not counting half an episode dedicated to a previously unseen secret society that only pops up its head when the revote for Ohio becomes relevant. The writers try to explain that the Skull and Crossbones-esque group has no influence on the national stage but could sway a single state. If that’s the case, why were they not pushed before to sway a couple swing states? Why were they never even mentioned when Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) was a core member of this group?

These are questions that are never answered, and showcases the main issue “House of Cards” creates for itself. To put it bluntly, they summon story out of thin air when it is convenient for them. There doesn’t seem to be any restraint on what the Underwoods or anyone in the administration can do. Instead, they are all powerful and everything breaks their way every time. Unfortunately, that’s boring. Last season felt like it had real stakes. This one never felt like the Underwoods were going to lose at any point. There lies the issue at hand. The structure of the show will do whatever it takes to keep Frank and Claire in office, even if it means characters are dumb enough to be caught on tape talking about killing the President, and the tape comes available days before an election. The convenience is maddening and weakens the show tremendously.

All of that said, the series is buoyed by the incredible work its directors, actors, and creative arts crews employ. The performances on the series as strong as ever, with Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey leading the way. Wright gets another platform where she can showcase her talent and intensity. There’s a feeling at times that the writers know that Claire is the more compelling character, and it shows when she has episodes to herself. She’s a stronger lead than Spacey, and it would almost be refreshing to see her in a solo venture. However, in the confines of this show, she is easily the most interesting and layered character. With Tatiana Maslany out of the running, can Wright finally capitalize?

Spacey is also strong, but this season it feels more self-serious than usual. At his best, Spacey makes snide comments and jokes to the audience, but the comedic angle didn’t hit this season. Without stronger comedy moments, the self-seriousness begins to drain on the audience. That said, he has enough Spader-esque monologues throughout the season where he could easily grab an Emmy. Spacey is one of a handful of actors who are so charismatic, that the character still works.

Michael Kelly once again shines as a supporting player in the season. He’s been one of my favorite pieces of the show since season 1, and he continues to pull it off here.  Neve Campbell, Patricia Clarkson, and Jayne Atkinson work well as a trio of women in politics, and all bring something special to the table. They each have strong standout moments, are significantly stronger than their male counterparts. This season, Campbell Scott steps in as one of the strong side characters and is far more exciting to watch than his candidate Joel Kinnaman. Unfortunately, Kinnaman’s shine from last season diminished quickly, and on multiple occasions throws temper tantrums that undermine his likeability from last season.

The standout aspect of the creative arts is still the show’s sleek cinematography. David M. Dunlap and Tim Norman split the duties every couple episodes, but the two have an excellent handle on the show’s aesthetic. The choice of angles and shot composition continues to make the show feel intimate, which helps the actors hit their moments. The editing on the season was a bit uneven at times but ultimately kept the plot moving. One wonders if it’s the editor’s fault, or simply that they didn’t have a strong story to piece together. It feels like the latter. The editors juggle the multiple narratives present well and made the show feel far more cohesive than it could have.

Overall the season was fine, but in the age of quality programming across the board, the flaws are far more obvious. While it may not be a perfect show, it is not a bad one either. However, if your show seeks to be the best on TV, then it must stand alongside those shows.  Unfortunately, the show’s writing hamstrings the rest of the series and leaves a lot to be desired. Fans of the show will likely enjoy the new season. If this is your intro to the show, you’ll probably want to stay away.

What do you think? How did you like the new season of “House of Cards?” What do you expect from season 6? Let us hear on the message boards and in the comments below!

“House of Cards” Season 5 is now available to stream on Netflix.

Grade: (★★)

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AC Fan

Written by Alan French

Alan French is a movie buff, a TV lover, and a sports fanatic. His favorite TV shows are 'Parks and Recreation,' 'Rick and Morty' and 'Game of Thrones.' He's also a Spielberg fanatic. You can find him on Twitter and Medium @TheAlanFrench.

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