This Week on Dear Television:
House of Cards is Just Okay. And That's Okay.
By Anne Helen Petersen
March 5, 2014
HOUSE OF CARDS does several things well, but narrative subtlety is not one of them: as a silhouetted Frank runs to catch up with the calm and collected Claire in the final scene of episode seven, I feel the distinct wallop of Intro to Filmmaking aesthetic communication. But I was once a student in Intro to Filmmaking, and I like it when I understand a visual cue. It’s a blunt metaphor, sure, but so too is Gatsby’s green light. My problem with House of Cards, then, isn’t any obviousness in storytelling, or Frank’s soliloquies, or the blundering straw man of the President. Rather, it’s the overarching insistence on labeling it as quality.
Over the last ten years, we’ve come to equate a certain aesthetic sophistication and narrative style with “quality,” and the hoopla over House of Cards is but the latest, and most amplified, example of this trend. Other television scholars have written about the fallacy of this equation with tremendous skill — my favorite of the bunch is Michael Newman and Elana Levine’s Legitimating Television — but the basic thesis goes something like this: ever since The Sopranos and HBO’s suggestion that “it’s not TV,” we’ve started to use the word “quality” to talk about stuff that we shouldn’t be ashamed about watching. Usually these programs had what Jason Mittell calls “narrative complexity” — lots of flashbacks, tricky ways of telling story, and what David Simon refers to as a refusal to talk down to the viewer. Think Lost, think Veronica Mars, think The Wire.
Because so many of these shows originated on HBO — or, in the case of Lost, were provided with the funding to compete with shows on HBO — they also had a look that people like me like to describe as “filmic,” which is really just shorthand for “beautiful” and “doesn’t look like Law and Order.” These shows were shot on location, looked great, and in both narrative and aesthetics, made people feel like they were actually watching really long movies — a phrase that should sound familiar if you’ve been reading any interviews with the people behind House of Cards. The “showrunner,” a novel designation with origins in the late 1990s, made it so much easier to think of these shows as art: if there was a single auteur to whom we can trace agency, it became much easier to situate the text within our understanding of “true art” as the work of a single author.
That’s all bullshit, of course, and as many critics have pointed out, it facilitates and perpetuates the dominance of white straight males within the industry. But even as we’ve supposedly left the “third golden age of television” behind, we’re still using the same rhetoric: if a show looks beautiful, has a complicated narrative, and offers a showrunner (and Hollywood stars to boot, if available!), then it’s quality. The problem with this paradigm should be apparent, as everything from Downton Abbey to The Newsroom fits the bill. And if you really think about it, most of the shows on ABC Family do as well: Pretty Little Liars is nothing if not narratively complex and aesthetically gorgeous.
This is a reductive and incomplete history, but you get the gist: HBO, critics, HBO-hopefuls, academics, and audiences have used the term “quality” to legitimate their pleasure in watching television. The very need to defend or explain the love for television underlines its root (and continued) status as a feminized mass medium, and the unspoken but widely held characterization of “difficult” media (high art cinema, high modernism) as masculine and “easy” or “pleasurable” texts (soap operas, television at large, romance novels) as feminine. But that equation dismisses the stunning similarities between soap operas — in truth, some of the most narratively complex programs on television — with our contemporary iterations of quality.
Indeed, one of my favorite pastimes is telling Game of Thrones bros that their “high quality” show is soap opera: it’s true, and that’s why most fans react so virulently. Thrones is gorgeously shot swords-and-sandals soap opera, but it’s still a soap opera — just one that costs ten times as much as an entire season of Days of Our Lives and shoots on location in Europe and Africa.
Yet the reluctance to own that designation — to insist on its difference and therefore its legitimacy — indicates just how fraught our relationship with television remains. Granted, it’s no longer cool to say “I don’t watch television,” and there’s a huge critical engagement with television at large. I’m writing this column, after all, for the Los Angeles Review of Books. But there should be no defensiveness, which is why I tell my students that they never have to explain why they watch a show: television is and always has been a cultural forum, and all of its facets, however banal or simple or complex, are worth discussing.
Which brings us to House of Cards. I’ve been watching it at the gym, which is the perfect way to do it. It’s engrossing, which makes me forget I’m moving my legs up and down in circular motions without going anywhere, yet straightforward enough that I never feel like I miss something when I’m breathing too hard to focus. I don’t mean that as a criticism: it’s a compliment. Like many of you reading this column, I’ve spent the last two months watching and rewatching True Detective, and I am ready for some readily digestible intrigue, which is what House of Cards provides in spades.
Now, you could write a paper on House of Cards and gender, or House of Cards and race, or, as Lili did so skillfully last week, House of Cards and Shakespeare. But as any academic knows, you could write similar essays on almost any television show and those things. The ability to write criticism — and, more importantly in this case, the desire to consume many episodes in one sitting — does not necessarily make a show better than any other. House of Cards has that Fincher filmicness, that Kevin Spacey gravitas, that Sorkin-through-a-glass-darkly narrative. Intrigue, sex, revelations — so highly watchable! But also somewhat forgettable. It’s not escapism, per se, so much as really expensive hors d’oeuvres with very few calories.
But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. House of Cards does exactly what Netflix wanted it to do: make people binge and talk about it. But the insistence of saddling it with words like “quality” (or defending its Emmy nominations) betrays a greater insecurity about the television we consume, love, or from which derive meaning.
Ultimately, House of Cards reminds me of another show characterized by political intrigue, narrative complexity, and high production values: Scandal. So many of my students feel like they have to apologize for their love for the show, especially the male ones, like it’s something dirty to confess. But no one feels guilty for liking House of Cards, despite its clear sibling status. Yet one show was created by a woman of color and focuses on a female protagonist, and the other was created by white males, including one of our most masculinist directors, and focuses on a white male, performing as straight. One includes romance, the other eroticizes power; one uses pop music and has commercials; the other loves Hollywood scores and pretends you aren’t paying a subscription fee. Commerce vs. art, feminine vs. masculine, subjugated vs. dominating, trash vs. quality — it’s easy to contrast the two, but it’s harder to interrogate why we insist on doing so.
I love so much television, and when I tell my friends or readers that you should watch something, it’ll never be because it’s quality: it’ll be because it’s worth thinking about. Sometimes things worth thinking about are slow (Treme, I feel you), other times they’re whipfast; sometimes they’re something seemingly ridiculous like The Kroll Show, other times they wear their “quality” markers on their sleeve. But I’m done with shame, and the implicit judgments about “the rest” of television (and its viewers) that it suggests. House of Cards is just okay. Definitely worth watching and writing and talking about, but just okay. Are we okay with that?
Shakespeare Performance Art
By Lili Loofbourow
February 24, 2014
HOUSE OF CARDS is back for another season of Robin Wright’s magnificent jawline and gorgeous time-lapse photography. (Those opening credits mesmerize me every time — if the measure of an opening sequence is how well it drums up anticipation and sets the tone, House of Cards’ is up there with True Detective, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Northern Exposure and Cheers.) Plots litter the ground, thick as the blood of slow-bled hogs. That said, something’s rotten in Frank Underwood’s “deep web,” and it isn’t the ribs, it’s the stakes. (Sorry. Spoilers and more puns ahead. Stop reading now if you haven’t finished the season.)
Is “to James Franco” a verb yet? Permit me: this show “Francos” Shakespeare in its slightly vacant cleverness, in its anachronistic winks and leaden symbolism and campy asides and interconnecting schemes. It wants to be Shakespeare performance but settles for being Shakespeare performance art — the high-concept version of the thing that counts on the “soap-opera-in-drag” fun factor to fill in the gaps. That sounds worse than I mean it to sound; I really enjoyed the season, but there’s a hollowness to the show that comes of its borrowing a form but refusing some of that form’s basic terms, thinking that makes it fancier.
But let’s start with Shakespeare: there are hunks of Lear in Jackie’s Goneril-like betrayal of Ted. Doug Stamper might be considered a loyal, unhappy Gloucester. Claire Underwood starts off as a rip-roaring Lady Macbeth though she’s changing — more on that in a minute — and she’s a Lear in her own right, a Clean Water Initiative despot who fired half her loyal staff and got stung by the serpent’s tooth of her pregnant, ungrateful child.
But then there’s Frank, and he messes with the categories and genres the series is happily shuffling, sometimes to the point of dramatic incoherence. He’s a really weird amalgamation of tragic hero and marginal villain: he’s Macbeth without the witches and ghosts, Richard III without the inferiority complex, but he’s also Iago without the sadism and Edmund without the daddy issues. It’s a bit like making a version of Frankenstein where the monster’s handsome and well-adjusted. For those characters, those qualities aren’t ancillary.
Frank is, at least in the beginning, a stereotypical revenger. The show acknowledges the visual progress Frank has made since the series started — from the margins to the center — but there’s a dramatic cost to that progress that isn’t quite working. Here’s why: revengers are out for revenge. That’s the point. That’s what drives the fictional engine they’re riding. They live in an emotional economy where retribution is the pleasure of watching the enemy suffer. They would have embraced the philosophy behind Freddy’s slow-bled hogs rather than kill Zoe Barnes quickly and painlessly. Revengers are bloody-minded; they aren’t sociopaths who enjoy toying with people just because they can, or pragmatists out for their own power — they’re people who bought into the system deeply, motivated by a passionate investment that didn’t work out.
That’s ostensibly what Frank used to be. He started off as a good team player who got the shaft and decided, with Claire’s help, to understand that betrayal as permission to abolish the social contract. The frame he offered was the revenger’s: he’d take down his enemies while pretending to practice good politics. For Frank, that has meant carte blanche to pursue power without any internalized sense of obligation. He has no private loyalties anymore. The revenger sacrifices his humanity to the spectacle of his aggressor’s comeuppance.
But that moment never comes: from the start we’ve awaited a moment of reckoning, a moment when he’ll gloat over President Who-Cares and Linda Vasquez. The stakes, for the avenging fury, are emotional. But that’s not the turn Frank takes. Instead, he starts to pursue power — not for revenge, not to use it for anything, but for its own sake. And, pace Frank and Remy’s ongoing debate re: the merits of power vs. money, both are boring answers and make for boring stakes.
The reason True Detective is so compelling is that it’s digging — deep — into the myth-stuff of why we kill, albeit using the hackneyed, ultra-conventional format of the police procedural. Frank, despite his entertaining monologues and asides that hint at some darker vision, is actually a pretty mechanical killer. Worse, he’s a mechanical thinker, a kind of Walter Mitty in reverse. Everything boils down to moves and countermoves and — as Natalia Cecire would put it — the puerile desire to win. It’s seductive. We certainly find ourselves caring way more about Tusk vs. Underwood than about the threat of war with China — to that extent, the show invites us to share Frank’s pathology — but our investment is ultimately as shallow as Frank’s victory. The reason why is simple: Frank’s myth-making, unlike Shakespeare’s, lacks social consequence. It’s not just that he doesn’t care about issues or the people he governs, it’s that his narrative crime is worse: he exaggerates the might of his adversaries. President Whos-it couldn’t be more of a pushover, Tusk proves absurdly easy to overpower, and Fang, without China’s backing, is less than dangerous. Insofar as there’s a social fantasy here — and boy is it a fantasy — it’s a) that the sociopathic billionaires are powerless against the sociopathic politicians, and b) that there’s an opposition between the two. (This reminds me of the sad debate about net neutrality: the main hope of defeating the TWC-Comcast merger isn’t civic concern or antitrust law, it’s that other corporations like Netflix don’t want it.) In House of Cards, there are no interesting antagonists, and maybe that’s Frank’s problem: he’s bored, so he exaggerates the petty politics into something bigger, something worth killing for. He’s a kid at play: his soldiers are toy soldiers, wars are reenactments, their causes “asinine.”
But he does have a worthy adversary in the offing: his wife.
One of the formal curiosities of House of Cards is the fake intimacy we develop with Frank. I know a lot of people hate Spacey’s campy asides, but I find them delightful, not just for the delivery but for the work they do. Unlike soliloquies, which offer an audience genuine insight into a character because she thinks she’s alone, asides are sly winks to us, the observers, that none of the other characters onstage can hear. Asides certainly make us complicit, but — this is what makes them so interesting — they also shut us out. Frank is playing us just as much as he’s playing anyone else. He’s always performing. He’s never alone.
Claire lives in a wholly different format entirely. She’s unaware of the audience, so we witness her humanity and malevolence in a way we never experience Frank’s. We’re privy to her solitary moods — her breakdown on the stairs, her face as she slowly realizes what she’s done to another rape survivor — but we’re never privy to her plots. She doesn’t outline them to us with a wink and a smile, or talk to us about her philosophy of kittens and cats, blood and sharks. The upshot is that she’s way more interesting. We don’t realize, when she’s sitting in the fertility specialist’s office, that she’s fact-gathering to use Gillian’s baby against her. I didn’t even realize it when she sits in her car and tells the receptionist she won’t be pursuing further tests. It took me a full minute to register what had actually happened, so easily seduced was I by the familiar myth of the older woman who suddenly, desperately wants a child.
Claire wields these myths with skill that far outstrips Frank’s. She’s closed where Frank is open. She’s developing underground, the way women so often learn to do, and if she started out as a Lady Macbeth, her pangs of conscience aren’t going to keep her in the background for long. Remember how bad she was at political maneuvering early in Season 1? How she wanted the extra tickets to the Jefferson Ball to clumsily ingratiate herself with some potential donors? How angrily she asserted her advocacy for the Clean Water Initiative, how openly she condemned Frank for putting his ambitions before hers? How did the character who nearly ended her marriage over his unwillingness to take her work seriously suddenly up and give the Clean Water Initiative away to her enemy without a second thought? Especially after taking extraordinary steps to blackmail and extort her? How does that character suddenly decide to give up the rape bill she spent so much time and energy on just to facilitate her husband’s path to the White House?
She’s up to something, and we can’t see what it is because Claire’s a hundred times better at this game than her husband. Don’t get me wrong: the show is way smarter than a simple Mean Girl diagnosis. It’s not that Claire, by virtue of her womanhood, is an innately gifted manipulator. Claire’s become a much savvier politician by watching Frank. Look at how slickly she turns Mrs. President Whatsit against Christina, how sympathetically she leverages their shared wifely vulnerability to convince the First Couple to go to counseling. It was Claire’s plot, not Frank’s, that finally brought down the President. Did you notice? The brazen, ugly ruthlessness Claire showed in Season 1 — admitting ambition openly, firing half the staff and creating massive resentment — has given way to a beautifully finessed transition from one publicist to another. She’s no less ruthless, but she’s learned from her mistakes. Look at how she handled that interview. Look at how she spun the scandalous photo, making sure their stories differed because otherwise (and she’s right!) it would “look too neat.” She flouts her publicist at every turn (while crediting him for her success) and she’s becoming a superstar because of her gift for meeting rudeness with apparent but only apparent (forgive me) Frankness.
Even the way the scenes are shot reflects this transition. The first season ends with Claire inviting Frank to go running with her. It begins with them running side by side, identically dressed. By the end of the season, Claire has stopped running. (Symbolism!) She’s repaired and started using Frank’s rowing machine. (Symbolism!) By the end of the season they don’t just share a cigarette anymore; they share a bodyguard and sexual partner. There’s something quaint about Frank telling Claire the weight he reached so she has a goal. It’s a nice marital moment and their marriage fascinates with manic equality, but there remains a distance between them. Frank pontificates in his solitary moments, but Claire reflects. She wonders what they’ll leave behind. She imagines stakes beyond sheer self-interest, and she’s capable of comprehending and even empathizing with the emotions of others even if she ultimately discards them. She’s smarter than Frank, and because she understands the magnitude of her actions, she’s more monstrous.
Frank says he “loves that woman the way sharks love blood.” It’s a perfect Underwood nugget that captures his Franco-esque penchant for the unexpected. Better still, it captures his perceptiveness and his vapidity. Frank intends the comparison to emphasize his savagery. He’s bloodthirsty, carnivorous, appetitive. It shows that Claire is the catalyst, the thing that drives Frank to kill. This is the myth of woman as Power Behind, of Lady Macbeth. But it shows other things too: it shows the limits, in his own mind, of his and Claire’s equality. (Blood is not the co-equal partner of Shark.) To the extent that blood is the symptom of violence that has already been inflicted, it suggests, too — against Frank’s intentions — that there’s a belatedness to his actions. He didn’t deliver the first blow, the blood was in the water before him, and he may be gleefully congratulating himself on kills that aren’t his own. (The Presidency, anyone?)
The show’s way out of the Francospeare lies in recognizing that Frank was never the hero, not because he’s not entertaining, but because he’s psychically incoherent. Nor is there anywhere particularly interesting for the show to go now that he’s on top: the formal neatness of ending where we began (with Frank Underwood’s birthday and a swearing-in) highlights the cyclicity of where we’ve been. It undercuts Frank’s victory by making his ascent to the Presidency less a climax than a reprise. The show’s bored with Frank, and rightly so — his desires are boring — but the solution isn’t to spin out dull Anonymous subplots with bumbling journalists (how badly did we all want Lucas to say “I AM IN THE INTERNET NOW” when he walks into the federal facility with the transmitter-thing?). I hope Frank’s problem, next season, turns out to be that he thinks a) Claire will overlook his not noticing that she’s sacrificed everything that was important to her for his career and b) that now that she’s taken his seat and started rowing, she’ll stop when she reaches his goal weight.
Every kitten becomes a cat,