I was a big fan of the first two seasons of the Netflix series House of Cards. But the third season, which dropped a week ago, may have lost me. Not because the show is relentlessly "bleak" (in the words of one reviewer), but because its diabolical main characters are starting to develop consciences. God save us from murderous fictional pols who are serious about government jobs programs.
From my new Daily Beast column:
House of Cards is going softer than President Frank Underwood's gut. The first two seasons were a palate-cleansing, tit-for-tat inversion of Aaron Sorkin's cloyingly earnest West Wing, where even the bad guys tended to be good-hearted, if ideologically misguided. But in just three seasons ofHouse of Cards we've gone from Underwood (Kevin Spacey) not thinking twice about shoving under a train the unethical journalist he was fucking to a world where he actually takes seriously the idea of a federally funded jobs program that will—finally! seriously! emphatically!—end unemployment as we know it. He actually seems to earnestly want to do something for people and not simply because it will give him more power. Hell, at one point, he echoes FDR talking about how the "country needs bold, persistent experimentation" to turn the economy around and approaches his "America Works" program as something other than the shovel-ready malarkey the old Frank would have gleefully exulted.
Even more disappointing is the devolution of First Lady Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) from a ruthless operator who puts Agrippina the Younger to shame into a latter-day Lady Macbeth filled with doubts about her and her husband's patently unredeemable actions. "We're murderers, Francis," she says at one point in the new season—as if that's a bad thing….
The third season of House of Cardsspends a hell of a lot of time humanizing the Underwoods and other characters. To be sure—spoiler alerts!—recovering alcoholic and chief of staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) is still capable of going on booze-and-sex benders and killing innocent people, but even he thinks twice before finally dispatching the prostitute Rachel, a loose thread whose existence threatens the president's reelection.
For all that, we are reminded time and again—and without irony—that leaders and policymakers are constantly balancing an impossible array of interests and tradeoffs.
Does anyone else remember the way All in the Family's Archie Bunker morphed from being a funny bigoted jerk to a maudlin softie who literally took in orphans? I wouldn't be surprised if Frank and Claire take in an adorable moppet in the next season of House of Cards.
Picking up on Peter Suderman's excellent essay from last fall about the rise of amoral TV protagonists, I talk about the origins of shows such as House of Cards (and The Sopranos, Damages, Breaking Bad, Peaky Blinders, you name it) and locate them in comedies such as Seinfeld and South Park, particularly the 2001 episode "Scott Tenorman Must Die," which may have changed TV (really!):
And then there is South Park, the Comedy Central cartoon that has aired since 1997. While virtually every episode concludes with a trite homily about what lessons have been learned, the show relentlessly refuses to moralize in the manner to which we've all been raised to expect from TV shows. At its best, South Park is set in a world far darker than anything conjured up by either House of Cards or True Detective. In the notorious 2001 episode "Scott Tenorman Must Die," the awful Eric Cartman tricks a bully who has humiliated him multiple times into eating his parents in a bowl of chili. After Cartman reveals to Tenorman what has transpired, he proceeds to lick the "tears of unfathomable sadness" from the boy's face. There is no indication that Cartman faces any retribution or feels the slightest pang of remorse (Tenorman gets revenge of a sort only in a video gamethat was released years later.)
Must-watch: Vote Frank Underwood.