Have we finally reached the point where dark, heavily-serialized dramas have become a little too paint-by-numbers? For a lot of House of Cards’ premiere episodes, it certainly feels that way. All of the various keystones to the genre are present – the anti-heros, the moral ambiguity, the backstabbing, the cynicism – but what was once revolutionary is now more than a little familiar, and the sense of deja vu running throughout House of Cards’ initial episodes is unshakable. Of course, this wouldn’t be an issue if the show had strong characterization or a unique story to tell, and while it’s far too early to definitively say that it doesn’t, nothing in these first four chapters do much to suggest it will. Aside from Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood and Kate Mara’s Zoe Barnes, there isn’t a whole lot to chew on from a character perspective, and the show’s narrative core – an exploration of the dirty side of politics – is something that has been tackled quite a few times already.
To be fair, every major aspect of the show is immaculately constructed. From the writing, directing, cinematography, and acting, House of Cards is unquestionably the work of a top-tier team, including David Fincher as executive producer and the aforementioned Spacey in the lead. But that inescapable air of familiarity is something that needs to be kicked in order to enjoy these first few hours, and quite frankly, for any regular fan of television drama, it’s a difficult task to ignore it. This is the problem House of Cards needs to overcome in order to succeed – it needs to differentiate itself from the wealth of series that have come before. Otherwise, it’s just the same old thing dressed up in a beautiful, but ultimately hollow shell.
The other major issue here stems from a lack of narrative drive. We know from the first few frames that Frank Underwood is not the type of man one should ever cross, and the entire premiere episode revolves around an ultimate betrayal. Frank is a master at political maneuvering. In exchange for his expertise, he’s promised the position of Secretary of State. Naturally, it’s taken away from him mere moments after his party wins the 2012 presidential campaign. A revenge plot is set in motion, but as these episodes move forward and the chess game begins, there’s little to no indication of what, precisely, Frank Underwood is planning. By the end of “Chapter Four,” there’s been quite a bit of maneuvering, manipulation, and victory, but the ultimate goal behind it all remains frustratingly unclear. In turn, while it’s entertaining to watch Frank steamroll one individual after another, the stakes are undefined and the sense of urgency is virtually non-existent. The show is playing its narrative cards close to the chest, but as it stands now, there’s no justifiable reason as to why it is doing so.
Despite these issues, the reason to keep watching House of Cards lies within the show’s potential. On paper, it looks like a slam dunk, and in the interest of fairness, it’s always difficult to judge a series still very much in its infancy. It has a few other things going for it as well. The writing is undeniably clever, and Frank Underwood’s dialogue carries the show even when it’s lacking in other departments. Another highlight is the handling of the narrative’s core relationship between Frank Underwood and journalist Zoe Barnes. As a play on the Woodward/Bernstein/Deep Throat relationship, Frank uses Zoe to leak information to the mainstream press. Kate Mara and Kevin Spacey have great chemistry playing off one another, and as it stands right now, they’re the only two characters that have any sort of dimension beyond being tools to get the plot moving in whatever direction the episode needs them to. It’s obvious House of Cards has the ability to engage viewers in the same way a series such as Breaking Bad or Mad Men does, but it’s frustrating that, so far, it only does so sporadically.
Next week, we’ll move through episodes 5-8, and with any luck, the show’s intentions and narrative focus will become clearer. What did you think of House of Cards premiere episodes? Let us know in the comments.
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