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“House of Cards” Season 4 Is Less Vulgar Than Real Politics

Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 7.24.31 AMIAN CROUCH

MARCH 4, 2016

 

House of Cards, in each of its first three seasons, served as darkly alluring counterprogramming, for politicians and regular viewers alike, to whatever political reality show it happened to be up against on Fox News or CNN. During times of gridlock between President Obama and Congress, for instance, elected officials on both sides of the aisle cited the series, jokingly but with a glint in their eyes, as a desirable alternative reality, in which the jammed gears of government were prodded free with the help of some literal arm-twisting and bloodletting. (The President himself said, in 2014, of the show’s main character, Francis Underwood, “Man, this guy’s getting a lot of stuff done.”) Boring Washington had never looked so sleek, politics never so sexy, and the regular, if dastardly, functioning of government never so possible. For outrageousness, entertainment value, or wish fulfillment—real life could hardly compete.

Now in its fourth season, which is available on Netflix, House of Cards faces its stiffest real-world competition yet, in the form of a pitched Presidential election in which the Republican Party is at open and bitter war with itself. On Thursday, I found myself repeatedly pausing new episodes of the show to watch the G.O.P.’s previous Presidential nominee rebuking the Party’s current front-runner (backstabbing!), to watch one of the front-runner’s former rivals defending his decision to publicly support the man he once claimed was unfit for office (devious maneuvering!), and to watch the front-runner himself fighting back attacks from within his own party (sneering show of power!). Mitt Romney, Chris Christie, and Donald Trump were, if nothing else, making for great TV. At one point, the interplay between House of Cards and whatever we should call this mounting Republican fiasco became almost uncanny. There was Trump, at a press conference on the campaign trail in Maine, recalling how Romney had come to him for an endorsement in 2012: I could’ve said, Mitt, drop to your knees, and he would’ve dropped to his knees. And there, in a parallel universe on my computer screen, in episode six of the new season of House of Cards, was Claire Underwood—with a better, more plausibly blond haircut—threatening the President of Russia during a backroom negotiation, I’m done letting you have your dignity. The truth is, you’re a beggar, on your knees, and you will take whatever we shove down your throat. At least Claire had the grace to make her bullying, insinuating remarks in private.

There are other echoes of the current political climate in the new season, and in most cases they similarly might leave viewers wondering which of the two worlds is preferable. Frank Underwood—who is, as we left him at the end of the third season, in the midst of a bitter Democratic primary campaign—gets badly beaten in South Carolina due to allegations surrounding his father’s long-ago brief association with the Ku Klux Klan. Compare this to the fact that Trump seems to have glided easily past his own delay in renouncing support from Klan members, or reports that his father, Fred, was arrested in Queens following a Klan riot in 1927. Or consider the advice given to President Underwood by his press secretary, citing poll numbers that caution against him naming a political novice as his Vice-President: Less than ten per cent approve of someone who has never held elective office. Many real Americans may be toying with the idea of fleeing to Canada; if only we could somehow travel to the saner land of House of Cards instead. It’s certainly tempting when Underwood, murderous, hateful monster that he may be, addresses a group of college students and says things like this: “A diversity of ideas makes us all wiser. And that holds true even for your President. True leadership is not running away from those who disagree with you, but embracing them.” Hugs! Frank Underwood sounds like John Kasich.

From the beginning, “House of Cards” gave off the appearance of deep seriousness—with its dark-hued color palette, brooding music, and various weighty doings. But the foundation of its appeal came mostly from its hyperbolically dark humor, from Kevin Spacey’s quotable, Richard III-style asides to the operatic nature of its plot twists. The first season was a delicious black comedy. Since then, and increasingly so with each subsequent season, the show has become more of a straightforward television drama. Frank rarely breaks the fourth wall, and there are fewer visual gags; the characters still do despicable things, but they try to look respectable doing them. And, as often happens to dramas as they grow longer in the tooth, the show has found itself stretching its narrative to the further edges of believability, or else tweaking old arcs and calling them new. Here’s Frank, in the new season, once again offering deals that no one in their right mind would take in good faith; or Claire, once again angling for a political position for which she appears hopelessly unqualified; or Doug Stamper, Frank’s chief of staff, once again brutalizing someone with a household object.

The plot of “House of Cards” was mostly incidental, and its ridiculousness could be forgiven, when the show wore its theatricality proudly. But opera would be pretty flimsy without the music. Even true believers would have to admit that, by now, the show has lost nearly all of the metal-edged wicked humor that once made it such devilish fun. (There are still rare glimpses, as when Claire’s mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, kills a lizard with a broom and then says, deadpan, “Watch your step, there’s blood on the floor.”) Whereas Frank and his frenemies used to get through life with a mean grin and a stagey aphorism about human psychology, they’ve now set their jaws for the long haul. Underwood, having ascended to the top of the political heap, is simply trying to hang on. And so the show has become a kind of endurance test for the viewer as well. The new season marches forward, the next episode beginning, automatically, just a few seconds after the credits roll on the previous one—and if you’re still with Frank, Claire, and company at this point, there’s probably no reason to quit now. Real politics is a bad comedy these days, and you might feel better spending time with the newly earnest Underwoods this weekend than watching to see which insult comic wins the Kansas caucus. If “House of Cards” was once a hedonistic and clever antidote to the colorless stagnation of American politics, now it offers the shelter of a world where the people running for office seem to take the task, for better or worse, very, very seriously.