By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com February 11, 2013 at 1:57PM
What Doesn't (Always Work)
The material it gives its female characters
*Some mild spoilers* Given the quality of the performances by the series' actresses, it's a shame that it doesn't always know what to do with them. Interest in the show drops off every time we check in with Claire's goodwill-sapping non-profit organization, or her affair with photographer Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels), and her gradual realization that she wants a baby is a rather disappointing development. Zoe starts off nicely, but veers wildly between cynicism and naivety, and once she ends her affair with Frank, hardly has anything to do, excluding her romance with fellow journalist Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus), the single least interesting character on the show. And while some nuance develops in her relationship with rival Janine (an underused Constance Zimmer), it doesn't speak particularly well for the show's view of women that all the journalists we come across are, or have been, banging their subjects (and that's even without going into the disproportionate number of prostitutes on the show). Despite Kristen Connolly's strong performance, Christina doesn't get much to do beyond look doe-eyed at Peter -- hopefully it'll pay off in season two. And for the Chief of Staff to the leader of the free of the world, Sakina Jaffrey's Linda Vasquez is essentially just another of Frank's lackey, ready to betray her President at the first chance of getting her son into Stanford. *end spoilers* If we were to given one major note to the show, it would be to amp up the female characters, because for the most part, "House of Cards" feels very much a man's world.
The 4th wall asides
Arguably the biggest single carry-over from the TV series is the device, introduced in the very first shot, of Spacey's Frank Underwood addressing the camera. It's an undeniably theatrical device, originally inspired again by "Richard III" and its soliloquies, and it works reasonably well in some ways; it lets Frank make you complicit in his scheming, can be a handy expositional tool, and gives Spacey room to stretch his theatrical muscles (it's also deliciously evil and funny at times). But the trouble is that, with the added length and scope of the show, the writers quickly run out of smart ways to use it. As a result, it drops off a good deal as the show goes on, with some episodes barely utilizing it -- and when they do, it can be pretty extraneous. Furthermore, it's hurt by the broader perspective. With the series often departing from Frank's POV, it makes less sense for it to happen without other characters doing the same thing. It's not a deal breaker, but we hope that the writers are more careful about its inclusion next time around.
We know that a degree of product placement is an economic necessity for certain shows, especially for one like "House of Cards," which doesn't have any other source of ad income. And it's possible to do it with a degree of ease and self-awareness, though probably more for comedies than dramas ("30 Rock" turned it into a running joke). But the use in "House of Cards" has to be about as egregious an example as we've seen. Dell and Apple products fill the frame, an entire (fleeting and inconsequenital) scene is set in front of an Enterprise car rental, and someone comments on the quality of the food they're eating...in a Pizza Hut. Worst of all is a scene seemingly designed entirely to showcase video games, that goes something like: "We're three votes short on the education b-- wait, is that a PS Vita?" "Yes, the reasonably priced PS Vita. I love playing all the latest PS Vita games on my PS Vita at home." Like we said, product placement is a necessary evil, but there have to be more seamless ways to intergrate it into the show.
Things sometimes go too easily for Frank
**MILD SPOILERS** However villainous your protagonist, the key to drama is in giving them obstacles to surmount, and the conflict that arises in them. But for Frank Underwood, things seem to go his way a little too often. We know that his scheme is clearly well-thought out, even when its finer details are a little fuzzy, but he's rarely backed into a corner in a way that makes for truly effective drama. The intention is clearly to make him more and more formidable, the smartest man in whatever room he walks into, but by besting Peter Ross, the President, the teachers union, and everyone in between, so easily, it can threaten to make the show uninvolving. It's the same issue that Superman's always had on screens; if he's invincible, it's hard to fear that he'll be beaten. And while Underwood isn't meant to be a wholly identifiable character, he's still our hero, and the show can't just be his plan falling into place. It's telling that some of his most dramatically potent moments come when he does start to be backed into a corner (by his wife's betrayal, by an ultimatum in the last quarter of the series), and it'd be nice to see more of that in season two, and maybe a new character to be a more formidable adversary for him to go toe-to-toe with.
The plotting can be far-fetched or contrived
**MAJOR SPOILERS** It's possible to forgive some of the turns that the show takes -- no matter how much you mistrust politicians, it's hard to believe that one could kill another and mock it up to make it look like a suicide -- because of the heightened, Shakespearean world it moves in. But there's a difference between that (although some Playlisters still found that a step too far), and complete suspension of disbelief, and too often the show falls into the latter category. It starts early on, with a plot revolving around an eye-catching monument that's caused the death of a local girl because of its resemblance to something naughty. It's kind of silly peg on which to hang an episode, but it's the way that it's blown up to be such a major issue that doesn't quite ring true. The teacher's strike is something of a bum note too -- an event like that which drags on for a month would be virtually unprecedented, and surely result in virtually career-ending reputations for both the President and Underwood, regardless of the questionable way in which it's resolved. And the way in which protestors are defused by a gift of barbecue, instantly transforming them into adoring fans, reeks of contempt for the electorate. This kind of plotting continues throughout the series, right down to the key decision of the Vice President to resign his office to run for Governor of his own state. The writers try hard to sell it, but it doesn't work, and the implausibility undoubtedly hurts the show.
The pace drops off after the big twist
One of our major concerns about the series moving forward is the absence of Peter Russo, a tragic pawn and the single most compelling character in the show so far. Fans of the original miniseries will have seen the move coming (in the BBC version, his cocaine is swapped out for poison, so this actually feels more plausible, luckily), but Stoll's performance, and the writing for the character, are so good that he'll undoubtedly be missed. In fact, the evidence is there in the last couple of episodes, which feel like codas to the major event of the season. Having the key turning point of a show occur before a season finale is actually a common device in cable drama (take the last season of "Mad Men," for instance), but with another 90 minutes of screen time to fill, without an awful lot of incident, "House of Cards" pulls off the structuring trick slightly less well. More importantly, there are the implications moving forward into season two -- will the show be lesser for the absence of Stoll? Again, the best way round it would seem to introduce a new character; a true foil for Frank Underwood, and one written with as much complexity as Peter was. Or just bring him back as a wisecracking ghost or something.
Someone get these script notes to the writers stat because quibbles and problems aside, "House of Cards" has us absolutely hooked and we cannot wait for Season 2. Hopefully it only gets better from here on out. Presuming you've seen the show, your thoughts on the series thus far?