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Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of House of Cards

When I first wrote about the First Season of House of Cards, my waxing of poetic might have gone a little bit overboard. I mean, I did call it the official beginning of a new revolution of television. But that being said, if the time between The Sopranos to Breaking Bad constitutes The Golden Era of Television, then we are most certainly in The Silver Era now. We are in a era of television marked by a vast quantity of shows, many of them great, with no real consensus of which one is the best. Netflix and House of Cards is a major reason for the current proliferation of great TV dramas as we don't even have to watch traditional TV channels to find great television programs. And House of Cards is currently back in the fold to be considered great.

I absolutely love the first season of House of Cards. I literally lost sleep just so I could binge watch another episode of the show. In the end, I placed it as my 4th favorite show of 2013 behind Justified, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men and right above Netflix's other major television program Orange Is The New Black. Not a bad company to be joined by.

House of Cards' first season was as good as it was because it had interesting characters (obviously most notably The Underwoods) that you couldn't wait to see what they were up to next. The actions of these characters might not have been wholly believable- mainly the idea that Frank Underwood could get any bill he wanted to passed with a little bit of elbow grease and blackmail- but you didn't have to suspend your disbelief terribly to envision that this version of Washington D.C. actually exists. House of Cards was first and foremost a political thriller where the web of lies and deceit was a chess game for Frank.

Then the show went off the rails. It happened towards the end of Season 1- mainly with the killing of Peter Russo. The show veered from political thriller to melodrama camp. I accepted this in the first season because everything else around it was so strong. I was so caught up in the show that I just accepted everything it was spoon-feeding me. I even was on board with the show after the beginning of Season 2 when Frank pushed Zoe Barnes in front of a moving train and magically got away with it just because I loved those "Holy Shit" moments. But that's where I drew the line. After that, the show treated its main character more like a cartoon supervillain out to kill Superman than it was with an ambitious politician trying to become President. In the world of House of Cards, I don't need to have these characters receive the full ramifications of their actions and I don't need everything to be ultra-realistic, but I do need to see a version of the show that can happen in real life. We did not get that version in Season 2. Frank would constantly undermine the authority of President Walker and would be given an unnecessary amount of second (and third and fourth) chances, there was an unnecessary and non-compelling story line of the battle between Frank and business owner Raymond Tusk, and Frank could do whatever he so wished in his private life with no push back whatsoever. Season 2 of House of Cards was not a political thriller, it was a soap opera with the appearance of gravitas.

That's not the same anymore thanks to the third season of House of Cards which has every episode currently available to stream. Creator Beau Willimon has seemed to have set the reset button on the show and started again- with great results. There's no more Raymond Tusk, there's no more President Walker, and there's no more soap opera hooey. We have our political thriller back.

Frank Underwood is currently the sitting president of the United States of America. He has the position he worked two seasons to achieve. He has accomplished his dream, yet he does not have everything he wants. His approval ratings are worse than atrocious and he can't get anything passed through Congress. He has no power. And that's where the fun and the conflict of this current season of House of Cards comes from. Frank Underwood has always been a man who can get what he wants or find the means to do so, but now that he's helpless, he needs to scratch and claw his way back to the top- and that's always what House of Cards has been about.

I have only seen the first four episodes of the show at this point, but I already enjoy it immensely, I like where the show seems to be heading, and I can't wait to lose sleep binge watching the rest of Season 3. The show is in a much more realistic place. It's certainly not what you see on CNN, but it's what made the show so great at its inception. Not only is this main story line good in its own right, but it's helped focus the other ancillary characters around this show. Remy Danton now officially works for The President, Jackie Sharp is still keeping in touch through Congress (albeit now in a more diminished capacity), and most importantly, Claire's story line centers around becoming a member of her husband's staff. Even Doug Stamper, while not officially on Frank's payroll, is still a central figure in this Frank-as-President story line.

It is certainly possible for Season 3 to fall off of the rails again. In fact, I'm halfheartedly expecting it to. But for now, the show has simplified itself for the better, and I am going to enjoy the old, yet new-and-improved House of Cards back into my life.



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