House of Cards returned for a fourth season over the weekend and this is far less an event than it used to be. When the show first premiered in 2012, it was touted as Netflix’s first foray into original programming—despite Lilyhammer dropping on the streaming service a few months earlier with a thud—so its arrival, coupled with the excitement of having David Fincher behind the camera, felt like a big deal. Not so much anymore. Netflix comes out with a new show every other week, David Fincher is noticeably absent from the series, and Frank Underwood is not nearly as interesting as he used to be. This didn’t stop me from watching most of the fourth season in a fevered rush over the weekend because one thing the show remains good at is keeping you invested enough to watch episode after episode despite the fact that you don’t care all that much about what’s going on. It’s been renewed for a fifth season with new showrunners and lord I hope it’s the last. There’s not much more they can do besides have Frank Underwood become Supreme Leader of the Universe which, now that I think about it, I wouldn’t at all be opposed to watching.
The inherent watchability of House of Cards is due almost entirely to Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. They’re great even when the writing fails them and it frequently does. Spacey chews the scenery like a shark on speed. It remains a hoot to watch him squirm out of every tight situation or intimidate his enemies, which include every character on the show, through grandiose speeches and vague yet menacing threats. This is also part of the problem. Frank is always the smartest guy in the room so there’s very little ever at stake. The show could have him get kidnapped by rabid gorillas and I’d have no doubt he’d convince them to be his personal bodyguards after offering them a few bananas. Frank’s constant one-upmanship of everyone around him became painfully tiresome by the end of season three not only because we know he’ll always win but because there isn’t much more for him to achieve. He’s the president now so every move he makes is about holding onto that position rather than achieving a seemingly impossible goal. Much of the suspense of the first two seasons came from making us wonder if this murderous megalomaniac would truly make it to the Oval Office. He did and that probably should have been the natural end to the series but it kept trudging forward regardless, presumably because Kevin Spacey likes mugging to the camera.
Truth be told though, I like wathing him mug so I can’t complain too much. It’s more fun watching Spacey wipe the floor with everyone than it is watching Spader do the same thing on The Blacklist. (SIDE NOTE: I had the flu last year and watched the entire first season of The Blacklist cuz I was too lazy to hit buttons and I remember virtually none of it). Also in season four, they finally put him up against a worthy opponent: his estranged wife Claire. Wright has never had more to do on the show and that’s a very good thing. She continues to portray Claire with an ice cold demeanor that betrays very little of what’s going on behind those steely eyes. Some critics have complained that Claire is too unknowable a character but I disagree. The not knowing makes for some added suspense since it is much harder for us to guess what her next move will be. She’s far more unpredictable than Frank and that makes for some very engaging TV for the first six episodes or so.
Sadly, that momentum hits a wall when the series spins off in a new direction after a ‘shocking’ development. It’s not all that shocking though. Every show with a President as a main character gets to this storyline at some point and I was actually sitting there thinking, “I wonder if they’ll ever do this”, only to have them do it seconds later. It’s a crummy, cheap surprise that keeps everyone in a standstill for a few episodes and eventually brings the series back to square one, leaving very little impact in its wake. It also involves some truly awful dream sequences that further cemented a conclusions I came to a few years ago: If your name isn’t The Sopranos, DON’T do dream sequences.
As is customary at this point, the show throws in a whole bunch of new characters to do nothing more than be occasional fodder for Claire and Frank. Ellen Burstyn pops up early on as Claire’s mother. The character seems promising at first, trading verbal barbs with Frank while making it clear she knows exactly what he is, but Burstyn is soon reduced to lying in a bed and whining about how her daughter is mean to her all the time. We also get Neve Campbell as Claire’s new assistant and the best thing I can say about Campbell is that she sure still is pretty. Joel Kinnamon fares better as Frank’s Republican rival but he’s underdeveloped to say the least and never comes across as a genuine threat. The rest of the supporting cast does the same things they did in previous seasons. Michael Kelly continues to brood as Frank’s Chief of Staff, Molly Parker continues to walk around and occasionally have sex, and Kim Dickens continues to suspect that Frank is up to no good. Whenever anyone besides Frank or Claire is on screen, House of Cards is boring as hell.
Thankfully, they’re on screen a lot and the show is still entertaining thanks to them. Every time I feel like I’m getting tired, Frank will threaten someone with a letter opener out of the blue or Claire will fully commit to a dastardly power play and I’ll remember why I watch. This is a fun show that I wish embraced it’s trashiness a little more. That’ll never happen though cuz House of Cards continues to look and act like a prestige drama despite containing plot points that would make Scandal fans howl. If you want a really good, more entertaining version of this story, watch the original BBC version. It’s on Netflix, the main character is far more deliciously evil, and the show has a lot more fun with his absurd schemes. It does run into the same problem as the American series though. As soon as he becomes Prime Minister, things get far less interesting. So please, House of Cards, end this thing while you still can. Either go full walrus next year and have Frank conquer the universe or finally give him his comeuppance. Anything in between will get you nowhere.