My dear friend and occasional platonic gay lover, Patrick Galey was the last in a long line of recommendations that led me to download the political drama House of Cards. My expectations were quite high, not only is Patrick one of only, perhaps, five other people on earth to love The Wire as much as I do and truly understand the gravitas of its social commentary, but the show starred Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood, the democratic party whip and would be king-maker in Washington. He is a captivating and well portrayed character, as is his wife Claire, played by Robin Wright. Unfortunately I feel both actors exceptional talents are underplayed by a script featuring far too many shots of Claire gathering her-secretly-emotional-self between steely encounters. We get it. She wants a baby and stuff. The same goes for the shots of Kevin Spacey’s fake smile falling away to deadpan as the suckers turn their backs. These repetitions aside our leading couple, positioned somewhere between the Kennedys and the Sopranos, are as seductive to me as they are to their “I work in the media and have a great body” lovers on the side.
Most of the credit for this has to go to the actors and shooters. As so often with movies and TV of late, the delivery outstrips the quality of the writing it is delivering. This makes sense.
Writing is the master art, the biggest rosebush in the garden, bursting forth from right beneath the rock from whence spring flows. As the flow from this spiritual and intellectual fountainhead of modern genius weakens, it is the first to wither.
The weak points in House of Card’s writing, specifically, come, as is so often the case, at the juncture of personality and sex. Kevin Spacey’s character tossing his lovers iPhone into the glass of water, saying he would buy her a new one, because he’s a big important man and that means you get to ruin other people’s stuff and not say sorry.
This isn’t as bad as the honey-trap-hooker sent to as part of the plan to bring down Senator Peter Russo (Corey Stone) in Episode 10. She says “I get drunk… then I get undressed”. We’re really at “it’s getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes” levels of subtlety and suggestion.
This is also the second time in the series where an immensely powerful and charismatic man, who would have a smorgasbord of sexual options in the real world, gets nervous and jealous like a 13 year old with a crush because a pretty girl flirts with them.
Russo’s relapse generally was – despite a chillingly executed murder scene- overall lazy writing. It was the easiest possible take-down, and, just like the dog Underwood kills in the series’s opening scene, Russo goes down without a real fight. Once again the vagina serves as a deus ex machina. Similarly, the drunken disaster interview goes to absurd lengths, just as with the “vowel movement” scene, it is a case where more is less.
At times, however, the plot’s failures go beyond merely lazy writing and reflect a deep misreading of the political zeitgeist.
When the lobbyist for the teachers union punches the congressman in the face during an argument, as far as the public knew, over collective bargaining, he would have become a cult hero. He would have had his own hashtag, t-shirts and a web-hosted express meme generator.
What’s more, when he needed a picket-line of a few hundred teachers he could have got them, and they would have cared about eating tomorrow as well.
Perhaps most galling was the portrayal of female journalists, one of whom we see, and the other of whom we hear about, using their feminine wiles, rather than investigative grit or even sycophantic “networking”, to get ahead in the industry. While it might be interesting and worthwhile to examine how journalists, especially women, are enticed to prostittute themselves, this is basically all we see of them until more than halfway through the series. Soon after their actual journalistic work becomes the focus, I also noticed, a male colleague turned lover shows up and takes a leadership role. One wonders if the writers have even heard of Helen Thomas, who – despite having a vagina – was known as one of the toughest reporters in Washington for decades.
There is of course much to be said for the show’s thrust at Washington’s dark heart, but it seems to me their angle is slightly off.
Perhaps the second thrust will hit the mark. Season 2 begins early 2014. I’ll be watching.