House of Cards, a political drama starring Kevin Spacey, takes place in a universe where the U.S. House of Representatives Majority Whip employs sex, murder and blackmail in his absurdly twisted and highly implausible plot to achieve higher office.
More importantly, it’s a darn entertaining show.
A Netflix original series, House of Cards was designed to attract and retain the widest possible audience.
The quality of style and actors are the series’ obvious attractions. Most scenes are depressingly indoors with characters either frowning beneath fluorescent bulbs or pacing gloomily through dimly-lit hallways and bedrooms.
If not indoors, the characters are probably entering or exiting them, framed almost exclusively by overcast days or black empty nights. These settings lend the show’s characters and dialogue a sense of soullessness and nonfulfillment.
Viewers’ only relief is an occasional evening run by the show’s main characters, Frank and Claire Underwood.
Spacey and Robin Wright portray the Majority Whip and his wife brilliantly. The character duo proves more resilient and alluring than any I’ve seen on television.
This is owed largely to Wright’s depiction of Claire.
The character, looming above her husband before every dark turn, helps dismantle the myth that powerful females live within a separate ethical sphere than powerful men.
Kate Mara and Michael Kelly, while cast in stock roles also offer more than what’s typically expected.
Spencer Kornhaber of the Atlantic identified Kelly’s character Doug Stamper as “the most intimidating dude on the show.”
Within a drama starring a former depictor of Shakespeare’s conniving monarch Richard III, that’s saying something.
Finally, as absurd and implausible as it is, House of Cards’ plot is its least obvious, yet most effective asset.
Characters’ actions often improbable and self-detrimental, move in unpredictable directions. This is a long-proven formula for keeping viewers on the edge.
Furthermore, one doesn’t have to be a Shakespeare fan to appreciate an unexpected alliance here or a dramatic downfall there, often for want of a simple nail.
To re-word a well-known proverb, the horse that couldn’t find a nail for its shoe could not fight the battle; the loss of the battle caused the king to lose his kingdom.
Whoever the next ruler is, you can expect him or her to keep nails in high supply — and to punish the heck out of that idiot horse.
Welcome to the House of Cards’ White House.
People want to see and believe that neglected details, however small, can lead to the ruin of even powerful people like the Underwoods.
This is the series’ main draw, its reigning theme: the conquered do not remain conquered for long. That is why the series begins with Frank Underwood’s loss of the Secretary of State nomination in the first episode.
Some critics deride “H of C” for not accurately representing life on Capitol Hill. Joshua Braver of Politico wrote that the show is “a thrilling ride, but ultimately a disappointing betrayal of the viewer’s trust.”
What Braver and others may not understand is that most television watchers aren’t educated enough in political science to be insulted by the plot’s implausibility.
Works of art, however pandering to the tastes of popular culture, aren’t (and shouldn’t be) bound by any sense of responsibility toward audience.
A work of art shouldn’t be required to teach people something that can be learned by observing reality.
Nobody’s betting political values or beliefs on an Internet drama.
Not even Joe Biden.