The Shortcomings of ‘House of Cards’

By Brent Glass

Frank Underwood

House of Cards, House of Cards, House of Cards!  Yayyyyyyyyyyy!  Obnoxious?  Absolutely… though it seems that’s what the world has been preoccupied with since the release of Netflix’s original drama, “House of Cards,” on February 14.

Admittedly, I was initially transfixed myself.  As season one approached, I was primed and ready to divulge the thirteen episodes as soon as humanly possible.  I mean, I was a political science & history major in college, with a minor in economics; there hasn’t been a show as apropos for a person with interests like mine since The West Wing (which I didn’t watch; too young, I think).  However, after watching the first nine episodes, I took a break.  The break wasn’t intentional or even conscious for that matter.  I simply stopped watching and didn’t even realize I had stopped.  Months later I returned to the show and finished the first season.  At that point, however, the show had lost its charm.

Don’t misunderstand me.  The first episodes I watched I thoroughly enjoyed.  I find Kevin Spacey to be a more-than-adequate actor, and – at least initially – I found Frank Underwood’s interaction with the audience titillating.  Oh, he’s talking to me!  *Delusion of grandiose self-importance.*  Unfortunately, having hindsight in tow, I believe I can attribute my early endearment to having watched the first nine or so episodes with my political buddies/ having artificially inflated the quality of the show in my mind to meet expectations.  No worries, my friends.  I watched the last few episodes with a less-biased mindset, and by the start of my second season journey I had cleared the haze entirely.  Now I’m here to deliver the truth that no one wants to admit:  “House of Cards” isn’t that good.

Kate Mara Shocked

Realize this: I am not saying it’s the worst show I’ve ever watched; it’s certainly not that.  I’m simply arguing that the elements that normally form the bedrock of a great television show are missing.  I have many complaints.  Mind you, these are my opinions and I do believe the show has merits.  This is just not going to be the article to find them in.  My first grievance, maybe ironically, is generally the reason so many people love the show.

In my opinion, the crux of the show is overwrought.  Not to suggest that the political world is not complicated and often corrupted – it most certainly is to a degree.  However, the series depicts an extremely fictionalized version (maybe even perversion) of the truth.  Obviously the United States government is not a favorite topic of late… okay, maybe it hasn’t been for quite some time.  But, “House of Cards” presents itself as based-in-reality.  No doubt there are some realisms embedded into the fabric of the show.  i.e. the positions and duties held by members of the government.  However, Kevin Spacey and other people attached to the Netflix drama, are overselling the sobriety of their plot.  I don’t buy it and the only reason most people do is because they want it to be that way even though “they really don’t.”

Let me explain.  You may be confounded by my latest statement.  What do you mean that people want it to be that way but “they really don’t?”  Well (in Reagan’s voice), people love drama.  Gasp.  Yes, I know that was not a profound remark.  Most people recognize that.  And, while many citizens would like to have an effective and efficient government, I’d argue they would still prefer to hear about drama.  Hypothetically, let’s say our government became as efficient as possible.  Maybe this would include the dissolution of the two party system into some hybrid.  Everything is hunky dory.  The presidential and congressional approval ratings are both above eighty percent (I know I’m dreaming).  Would sensationalist news sources like Fox News and MSNBC cease to exist?  Absolutely not.  They would find ways to circumvent the sublime state of politics and report on the dirt.  Maybe their ratings would fall, but maybe not.  In many ways I fail to see how “House of Cards” is any better for the country than Fox News or MSNBC.

Who is Mitt Romney

Another complaint I have is that there is no challenge to the viewer.  Creative writing is slightly different than screen writing, but there are some similarities.  My creative writing professor used to implore his students to trust their reader.  This was especially important in poetry but relevant in all other forms of writing.  I believe this idea should be exercised by well-written television shows as well.  Trust the viewer.  The execution of such lies within the art of subtlety.  “House of Cards” is anything but subtle.  There is no challenge for the viewer; everything is laid out on a platter.  Here, this is what you should digest and what you should think about it.  Be advised that I am not suggesting all commentary and themes have to be cryptic, just that the viewer should have to think on occasion.

As previously mentioned, Frank Underwood’s direct dialogue with the viewers has been considered a positive factor by fans.  Like I used to, viewers tend to get excited when Frank talks to the camera.  This is “House of Card’s” attempt at making Frank Underwood an antihero.  I say attempt because, in my opinion, they still fail to do so.  The key to an antihero is that there are redeeming emotions and motives that turn normally bad actions grey.  Frank’s relation to viewer does not offer redeeming qualities, just a more direct line to the wickedness that is his mind.  It is a trick employed to align “House of Cards” with the upper echelon of television.  Again, I don’t buy it.  In the previous paragraph I mentioned how HoC serves everything on a platter.  In more cases than not, Frank’s speaking to the viewer was a vehicle to distribute what the writers wanted the viewers to retain.  The method is not inherently bad.  If employed properly, it could have added another layer of character development, but rather it cleared up the little subtlety that did exist.

Furthermore, from a writing standpoint, the character development and/or growth is almost nonexistent.  The second season attempted to create a deeper story for some characters but the effort appeared lazy and second-rate.  Frank Underwood, the main character of the season, is essentially static.  His inner workings never waver and aside from surmounting seemingly insurmountable problems, he doesn’t change much.  Claire Underwood undergoes the most progress.  She wrestles with past demons and, at times, it appears that she does have a heart.   Similarly, Doug Stamper’s character was deepened, exposing an emotional being – a far cry from the vapid chief-of-staff viewers had in the part of the first season.  Unfortunately, this was about the extent of character development.

Lastly, I wanted to briefly comment on the absurdity of product placement in “House of Cards.”  I have been cognizant of the comical surplus of products in the show since the beginning.  There is a particularly infamous scene from the first season (pictured below), which showed that Apple must have shoveled out loads of money.  The irony, of course, is that for a show that seemingly wanted to comment on the ridiculous influence large companies have over politicians, it sure didn’t shy away from accepting companies’ funds.


Again, I’ll say it:  “House of Cards” is not the worst television I have ever seen.  I understand why people enjoy the show as much as they do and there are positive aspects of it.  I simply chose not to discuss them since fans have been doing an adequate job at screaming praises.  I will continue to watch the show, because it’s entertaining.  However, there is a ludicrous idea held by some.  The idea is that “House of Cards” ranks among the best television shows of the past decade, with an antihero at the helm, therefore fulfilling requirements to be in what Brett Martin dubbed the “Third Golden Age of Television.”  I strongly disagree.  “House of Cards” is an entertaining show, but – for reasons I discussed – falls quite short of sneaking into the “Third Golden Age of Television.”

Brent Glass is a Michigander who graduated from Eureka College in May of 2013. He spent time at the Sagamore Institute in Indianapolis, IN (a non-partisan think tank) where he worked on political economy pieces for Detroit, MI and Elkhart, IN. Additionally, he spent the summer of 2012 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA, working on social media management. Currently he is working as a freelance writer for Sagamore Institute, creating a social media management business (Connect You Consulting) and working full-time as a Management Assistant to the owner of a car dealership. He plans to further his education in the fall of 2014 in public policy.


Categories: Television

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