By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood February 14, 2014 at 12:18PM
UPDATE: While critics debate the merits of the new season of "House of Cards," President Obama has a simple request, via Twitter: "No spoilers, please." POTUS has joked in the past that he wished Washington operated more like the Netflix show. And with all episodes of Season Two arriving today, he doesn't want the online chatter giving away too much. Check out his Tweet, below, plus our review roundup of the new season.
EARLIER: Netflix's alternately dark and campy original series "House of Cards," starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as the nefarious Underwoods turning D.C. on its head, is returning for an all-episodes second season this Valentine's Day Weekend. Variety dropped its review early a couple of weeks ago, but now more publications are weighing in on the new season. A review roundup, below.
But it's Claire, and the Underwood marriage, that makes "House of Cards" more than just a better-than-average addition to the genre of Antihero Drama Being Used to Establish a New Fiefdom in the Television Landscape (see also "Nip/Tuck," "Dexter," "Mad Men," "Vikings" and "Klondike").
Still and chilly where Frank is ever-seething, Wright's Claire is a character we've never seen before. She's a political wife who seems neither scorned nor thwarted, though in actuality she is both of these things. But she is also plagued by doubts, and menopause; her decision to remain childless has seesawed her from one season to the next.
Season 2 is as immersed in the battlegrounds of governing as “The West Wing” was: entitlements, Chinese cyberespionage, anthrax scares, parliamentary procedure, government shutdowns. But that Aaron Sorkin series on NBC ennobled politics. “House of Cards,” which was adapted from a 1990 British series of the same title, eviscerates it. And while the second season picks up where Season 1 left off (the tagline is “The race for power continues”), this continuation is possibly even darker and more compelling than the first.
Underwood still turns from the action to address the audience in the style of Shakespeare’s Richard III, but his cynical asides are not as clever as his underhanded actions. The conceit worked better in the British original, which was more arch and satirical and closer in spirit to “Kind Hearts and Coronets.”
The American version takes itself more seriously: Its tone is a double bass, not a flute.
The meat, however, is positively succulent.
That’s season 2 of House of Cards on a plate. (At least, the four episodes I’ve seen in advance.) It is the same show you saw last season, the same weaknesses and strengths intact, but, as it makes clear before the first hour is over, every bit as brutal and sanguinary. If you were dubious about the first season, you probably won’t want to go back. If it won you over, round two–the full season of which goes live on Netflix 12:01 a.m. PT on Feb. 14–dishes up more red meat that’s anything but cruelty-free.
Like Frank, "Cards" has a very high opinion of itself. It wants so much to be An Important Drama (despite having a fairly shallow take on both government and its main character) that it's far more dour than a show about a conniving political mastermind should be. Frank's asides to the camera are often the only humor of note, and much of that is undercut by the clumsiness of the device itself, which makes sure to spell out as much of the subtext as is possible in a 10-second witticism. ABC's "Scandal" also deals with backstabbing and murder in and around the White House, but it doesn't have the pretensions "Cards" does, and thus is free to tell similar stories in a loopier and more entertaining fashion, and also in such an exaggerated tone that you don't constantly stop to question the logic of it the way "Cards" unintentionally invites the audience to do.
The first season of “House of Cards” achieved the dual feat of instantly emerging as a first-rate drama while simultaneously being seriously overrated – riding the “Netflix reinvents TV” angle and juicy inside-the-Beltway bits to front-page coverage. No fools they, season two generally proceeds with more of the same, exhibiting a show with abundant strengths – foremost among them Kevin Spacey’s showy performance as an unscrupulous politician – but also underplayed weaknesses, including a continuing failure to present its scheming protagonist with equally matched foes. Dense and smart, “Cards” is still partially skating by on reputation – and for Netflix’s purposes, that’s good enough.
I think House of Cards was a heavily buzzed show that suffered from not being the greatest thing ever and there might have been a "meh" backlash by the time those lists were formed.
But here we are with season two approaching and, based on the early episodes made available to critics, House of Cards is pretty much the same show it settled into less than midway through its first run. It's entertaining and cruises along with a strong pulse. There's a core mystery and American politics is mocked, appropriately, for being a two-party hustle of recrimination and separatism. Dramatically, there's much to be pulled from that divide.
Based on the four episodes made available for advance review, "Cards" is still as handsomely crafted and marvelously acted as ever -- even when a smirky Spacey is chatting at the camera. And it still exudes that atmospheric chill, largely because so many scenes are bathed in shadows or filmed at night.
On the other hand, these early episodes don't quite provoke the same kind of adrenaline rush as last season. That could be because Frank's "Survivor"-like back-stabbing is beginning to feel a bit repetitive. Or it could be because we're missing the magnetic presence of Corey Stoll, who was blazingly brilliant as doomed congressman Peter Russo.
And the first four episodes of the season feel much more like that -- a show, not in the sense of form but as entertainment, filling with some juicy developments as well as some slightly ludicrous ones, delivered with more of a wink by Frank than before. It may be darker, but it's also less heavy -- "House of Cards" seems to have shed some of the blanketing burdens of importance that weighed down the first season, and takes more pleasure in its own deviousness, with Frank as our slithery guide to hell or the Oval Office, whichever comes first, and the audience as his primary confidant.