By which I mean it looks so slick dressed in its post-Watergate jadedness about politics but in the end it has no substance and a strong wheeze can blow it apart.
Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood does an excellent job, but that is a given for Spacey. It helps that he has by far the best character in the show. The other standout in my mind is Corey Stoll as Peter Russo the coke head Congressman that later tries to put himself on the straight and narrow.
Everyone else is adequate, with the exception of the actress, Kate Mara, playing Zoe Barnes. Part of it is not her fault. Zoe is an awful character falling prey to that most insidious of sexist tropes: the ostensibly powerful female who is in fact nothing of the sort. See Wheel of Time for many examples. We are, I think, supposed to see Zoe as incredibly ambitious and, after an argument with the male editor of her paper, not willing to let a man dictate the rules of the game to her.
Unfortunately, this is all undone the minute she lets Frank Underwood sleep with her so that he can then use her to manipulate media coverage. She is both literally and figuratively a prostitute and Underwood is her john.
The problem is that Mara plays her character with dead eyes and flat expressions. Maybe the character is supposed to already be super jaded or at least pretending to be; God knows the writers want everyone else to be. Even when she finally lays out the nature of their relationship to Frank she does it with very little heat. Yet there are other scenes that suggest Zoe was supposed to be much more naive. Ready for the filth of DC she would still be surprised by the depths of its depravity, but none of that is developed on.
The other major female character is Frank’s wife, Claire. She is a cold hearted woman that for some reason runs a charitable organization that does something I think. It never made sense. Here is another in the cadre of “too cool for school” characters that is not even bothered by the infidelity of her husband. That is until she does.
She strikes up an affair with an old flame and then feels guilty about cheating on her philandering husband. Even worse, when she shows a bit of backbone and confronts Francis about how he has arrogated her career for his own ambitions she eventually backs down. Some of this is Frank being a Mary Sue (which I will touch on later), but most of it is Claire being far weaker than she pretends to be. She does stab Frank in the back one time and when Franks finds out about it (“I want to know who lied to me!”) is the best part of the show.
Anyway enough about the characters, what about the plot? Well the series opens with absolutely transparent and awful character building moments like Frank killing a lame dog. Similarly, Frank spouts off cringe-inducing lines like “I love my wife like a shark loves blood.” We can be thankful that the blunt writing starts to recede. Unfortunately, we still have to suffer from Frank breaking the fourth wall to tell us the subtext of the situation. I would say the audience is smart enough to not need his handholding, but then there exist people that actually praise this show.
However, the worst part of the beginning of the show is the invincibility of Frank. He maneuvers everyone to his will with unerring accuracy and he has no opponent even trying to match wits with him. The theme of the show seems to be that Congress is a dirty nasty place except for the naive dimwits that are Frank’s colleagues. It makes the first few episodes really boring.
Then comes the Teacher’s Union arc which breathes some life into the show. Suddenly things aren’t under his control and he has opposition that occasionally surprise him. Strangely Frank is up against a friend, but not even he seems aware of Francis’ propensity for underhanded tactics. I personally like my clever manipulator types to be known as a tricky customer and still get people to do what they want. It’s how I operate after all. I just find it hard to believe that Underwood has been on the Hill for so long and yet everyone still treats what he says and does at face value. This seems ludicrous in Congress even if you have no reason to distrust Frank.
Then we move onto the final arc which is mostly engaging because of the Peter Russo character. Russo is a fuck up and Frank convinces him to put himself back on the straight and narrow. He does and runs for governor and he actually cares about doing some good now. It’s a very well done character arc. Of course, the audience knows that Frank has some reason for doing all of this. Unfortunately, it again makes no sense. See, they want Russo to fall from grace again so that the Vice President will step in to run for governor and then Frank can become Vice President.
If this seems far-fetched you are not alone. First, they entice Russo to the dark side again with a pretty face and some booze. It was far too easy for a man that had tried so hard to be sober for so long. Then the chain of events that would lead to a Vice President stepping down and Frank being picked as a replacement is highly unlikely. The worst of it is that it makes no sense. Frank felt snubbed for Secretary of State so he enacts a grand plan to become the Vice President of the guy that snubbed him? Not even taking into account that if he could devise a way to be the VP why even bother with SoS?
Now barring his way to VP is a rich white guy. He wants Frank to do him a favor before he recommends him as VP. This favor? Manipulate the exchange rate with China. There are like a million plausible things a rich white guy would want from a VP and they chose one that makes no sense. First off, it’s not even clear how he would make money from this. Secondly, the VP has no control over monetary affairs. He should be blackmailing Ben Bernanke. Third, that still wouldn’t help him unless he could convince old Ben to buy and sell Chinese currency in huge amounts and hope that the Chinese don’t offset it with their own purchases. Of course, the purpose of this move is blatantly clear and Ben would probably face hearings about removing him from office. It’s a terrible idea and one wonders how this guy became rich with such shitty ideas.
So that’s where it ends except for a dull plot where Zoe almost finds out about Frank’s dirt deeds. And by almost, I mean she has nada. Just more Zoe fail in an entire show filled with Zoe fail. Nothing good has ever come from people named Zoe. First I had to put up with Zooey Deschanel (she can’t even get her own first name spelled correctly) and now Zoe. We should just round up all the Zoes and variations thereof and force them to watch 500 Days of Summer for the rest of eternity.
The ending is as anticlimactic as the rest of the show with Frank promised the VP and none very wise about his murderous efforts to get it. I really love political shows, but this was not a good one. This could have been set in a large corporation for all that it really used DC as anything more than a backdrop. It’s too bad because the production values on this show are extremely high and everything is slickly done and competently acted. Netflix proved to me they have the chops, but not the writing and neither Hemlock Grove nor Orange is the New Black are doing anything to erase that impression.