Reviewing Season 2 of "House of Cards"
I must admit, I was not one of the millions who fawned over season 1 of House of Cards. Sure, I thought the acting was outstanding, the cinematography absolutely beautiful, and it showed great promise for what a Netflix Original Series could be; I also found it incredibly plodding, and slightly too much style over substance.
After nearly a year of people telling us that Season 2 was much better than the first we finally sat down on a cold sunday in December and started the second season. With the first episode ending, almost literally, with a bang one might think that we were in for a much different, much more plot heavy second season full of twists and turns along the way. And while, sure, there were a few twists here and there it really was much more of the same, only without all the setup from the the first season.
Perhaps the series biggest flaw is it's characters; none of them are particularly likeable. The few characters you do root for also don't tend to stick around for long, or if they do quickly take a turn for the worst. That'd be fine if the show was all about the plot, but with so many episodes focused on character development it's hard to care when you're not rooting for a single one of them.
Contrast this with The Sopranos which I also recently started re-watching from the beginning. Yes, it's a little dated both in its style and approach to storytelling, but it's also remarkably more compelling than most shows today. It's also a series filled with anti-heroes, and yet you're rooting for them along the way. It crafts characters that, while flawed, are also human and that we can relate to. Sure, Tony Soprano is a cold blooded killer, but he's also a man who loves his family dearly and just wants the ducks to come back to his pool... Frank Underwood simply wants power, and lots of it. Yeah, he loves his wife, who is equally calculating but there's not much more there. Yes, this can make for some interesting dynamics here and there, but it also starts to quickly wear thin, and I can't imagine where it will go in season 3.
It's also a problem if you don't really care for politics. Take for example The West Wing; the show is compelling even if you aren't that interested in politics because of the wonderful characters within the world. House of Cards doesn't have that, meaning that if you start to find the political stuff boring you're forced to try even harder to care about its despicable characters.
The show has also been revered for its style, and rightfully so. Certainly, with David Fincher as part of the creative team it's a given that House of Cards is going to be a beautiful looking show. And there is no doubt that it is. It goes without saying that it's the best looking of the Netflix Original Series, and easily one of the best looking shows out there, period. It's use of high contrast lighting, dancing on the edge between light and dark, would give Gordon Willis pause. The problem is that it really starts to feel a bit like all style over substance. I can't count the number of times throughout the series I wanted to shout "just turn the bloody lights on"! Again, contrasting with The West Wing which was also noted for a similar stylish choice; the walk and talk. The difference here is that the walk and talk was a device constructed to help move the series along; to get characters from point A to point B while delivering pages of dialogue. House of Cards' penchant for keeping the lights off, and over-use of backlights does nothing to move the narrative along. Instead it mostly just leaves its cast in silhouette making it almost impossible to actually see exactly what is going on. It's not like 90% of acting is facial expressions or anything... What started out as a unique and beautiful stylistic flourish in the early episodes and quickly becomes one of the series trademarks eventually descends into what feels like laziness. At least they toned down the breaking of the fourth wall.
There's also far too many episodes in which nothing happens. And I don't mean episodes in which it's mostly focused on characters, but literally episodes that feel like they're just stalling for time. I thought part of the beauty of making a series for Netflix was that you weren't constrained to the typical 42 minute, 13-episode series dictated by traditional television. This is one of those shows that would benefit from the British model of "make as many as it takes to tell the story, and make them as long as it takes to do so". Hell, the original British series the show is based on was only 4 episodes (albeit with 2 follow up series). What's perhaps most maddening about the episodes in which very little (and sometimes almost nothing) happens is that the show has a tendency to introduce interesting and exciting subplots only to wrap them up after an episode or two (not to mention doing so abruptly). It's as if they were worried they'd run out of time to tell all their stories, so they cut things off just as they start to get interesting. Why not drag those interesting subplots out a little longer, instead of giving us more episodes focusing on the Mr. Burns like Raymond Tusk, and his lackeys. And don't even get me started on all the weird sex stuff within the series that feels like nothing more than pandering and ultimately goes nowhere.
Ultimately the show ends exactly how one might have predicted from early in the season. I won't spoil it for you, but you can make a fairly educated guess as what might happen, and you'd be right. Yes, there's one element of the finale that might be considered a twist, but I have no doubt that even that will be undone by season 3 (probably early on in the first episode). Honestly, maybe this is what bothers me the most. For all it's plodding, for all it's "uniquely dark" characters, and for all it's stalling, the show ultimately winds up being just as predictable as every other show on network television.
Don't get me wrong. Despite all of this I wouldn't say the show isn't worth watching, just perhaps not worth prioritizing. With season 3 just around the corner I'll likely just roll along into it since the second season will be so fresh, but a part of me would much rather start The West Wing from the beginning again. Still, I'll take a smart, stylish show like House of Cards over any number of reality series, or paint-by-numbers network comedies/dramas the masses seem to gobble up. And I hope that Netflix continues to craft smart, stylish, original content. I just want them to use the medium to its advantage. I want more shows like Luther, The Hour, or Utopia. Hell, I'd even settle for something like Hannibal.
Which reminds me, if you want a smart stylish series, with anti-heroes you can root for (and against), dark twisted storylines, and absolutely beautiful cinematography watch Hannibal instead. You'll be much more glad you did, and far more fulfilled.