Monday, December 7, 2015

Late to the deal

Tricia and I have finally returned to Netflix and have, thus, begun watching House of Cards. My departure from the streaming service a few years ago had a little bit to do with money (when it's tight, you get rid of non-essentials, etc.) and a lot bit to do with time. There's so much good TV out there right now and so many good documentaries (two media that Netflix excels at providing) that I could easily find all of my free time consumed by watching the big, red screen. Given that I'm still trying to use at least some of said free time to create a career, that would be bad. But she decided to re-start her subscription on a free night and so here we are.

This had to be an 'Iron Throne' swipe, yes?
Overall, I like it. We've already blazed through season 1 and are two episodes into season 2. I think they've done a good job of injecting believable drama into what is ordinarily a fairly grueling and soporific process. No one likes to know how the sausage is really made and sticking a half-dozen suckers in a committee room for five days without showering is sometimes how it's made. In the same way that Veep took the driest and most pedantic of subjects and made it the funniest show on TV, House of Cards creates real tension around the process of guiding a bill through Congress and who gets sacrificed (sometimes literally) along the way. Oddly enough, they're the flip side of the same coin, in that Frank Underwood desperately wanted to be Vice-President (so far) and Selina Meyer wanted to be anything but.

What makes Veep work for me is that no matter how goofy the story gets, the characters remain largely authentic. I can still look at any given moment and say: "Yep, I knew someone on the Hill who was just like that.": Vainglorious, petty, oh-so-desperate to be seen as important but still smart, capable and ridiculously hard-working. That's essentially the consummate Congressperson and/or their aides/flacks/tools. HoC does the same thing, albeit with a bit less of the absurd as you might expect. That doesn't keep Frank from being contemptible at the same time he's being masterful in his manipulation of the world around him. Spacey's frequent moments of breaking the fourth wall as he snarls disdainfully about the inability of others to keep the proper Beltway pace don't hide the fact that what he most wants others to do is make him look good. That, in the end, is often what politics and influence are all about: ego, and Frank has plenty of it.

"I'm a good person! BWAHAHAHAHAHA!"
The one notable exception to that blanket statement of authenticity is, unfortunately, Spacey's co-star Robin Wright, as Claire. The character strikes me as a device and not much more than that. Her role is like a scriptwriter's photo album: ""Here I am ruthlessly destroying my idealistic assistant!" "Here I am enjoying my boilerplate tragic affair with the sensitive, creative man my husband can never be!" and so on. Her role apart from Frank seemed to be on shaky ground from moment one, since they've never really established why she'd be interested in running the Clean Water Initiative and why that would be crucial to their combined goals, as she repeatedly emphasized. Lots of Congresspeople have done quite well without their spouses running a charity and axing half the staff in the process. They've never stopped to say that Frank's campaign war chest was relying on the bleeding hearts of those concerned about water issues, Democrat or no, so Claire's "crucial" activity seemed to be more of an effort by the writers for her to simply have something to do other than plot to ruin people's lives and keep the window cigarette box filled. That's not to say that Wright has filled the role poorly. On the contrary, her shark's eyes stare has often been one of the more exciting performances to appear on the screen but she's not doing much other than be the female version of Frank and aspiring to far less lofty goals of her own.

OTOH, Kate Mara (when I first saw her, I was like: "I know those eyes. Is that Rooney Mara's sister?"), Michael Kelly, Corey Stoll, and Mahershala Ali have also been mostly excellent and quite textured. Kelly's Doug Stamper is kind of fascinating, in that the struggle in his eyes between his 12-step-influenced concern for others constantly loses to his absolute obedience to Frank. But the fact that the struggle is there makes him interesting to watch. You normally only get that kind of loyalty from someone who deeply believes in the person he's adhered to. Frank doesn't present as that kind of inspirational leader and it's Ali's Remy Martin who makes that most obvious, since he's been vibrating with disdain for Frank and everything he does since the moment he appeared on screen. Martin knows the truth, on both a personal level (as he points out that the first time he made it past Frank's doorstep after 8 years was when the latter actually needed something) and a policy level, but he's accepted that this is his world. I made the point more than once when I was with the Greens that to be in the game, you have to play the game, to one degree or another. Martin is clearly in the game, but his contempt for most of it constantly shines through.

Mara did some great things early on as the ambitious reporter, Zoe Barnes. Unfortunately, the writers didn't seem to give her enough room to really transition from partner-in-crime alongside Frank to seeker-of-the-truth against him. For the last couple episodes of season 1, I was regularly wondering just why she was choosing to pursue him so doggedly. Did she really perform an about-face that drastically when she decided to stop screwing him and become the daring reporter for the people? Was her pursuit just another aspect of her desire to show him who was really important in the context of their professional relationship? Or did it all boil down to her shock over Peter Russo's death? If it was just the latter, I didn't feel like it was spelled out enough for the character to make such a shift over that short span of time. Of course, I may be the victim of binge-watching, too.

Zoe was also part of my only true "WTF?" moment of the series, to date: her being ground under the tracks of a Metro train. Both Tricia and I had a "Wait... Wut?" moment when that happened. Everything that Frank had done to that point had been careful, planned, assured, even subtle. Suddenly, he was the VP of the country tossing someone in front of a train with three dozen potential witnesses nearby. That dog don't hunt. I guess it's possible that the writers had kind of cornered themselves with the Zoe storyline, knowing that she wouldn't give up and/or that her relationship with Frank was now a dead-end, since they'd never have the same level of trust. The only way out was to get rid of her. If that's the reason for it, it's clumsy, but it does leave the "crusading reporter" aspect running without the complications, since Sebastian Arcelus' Lucas will continue on in her memory and without the personal ties to Frank. That's the best way I can look at it. The worst way is to assume that they did it for shock value to kick off the second season and used the ever-more-frequent reasoning that "Game of Thrones does it!" I really hope that's not the case, especially since both Tricia and I thought that Frank's ascension(?) to the role of VP would have made a far better ending to season 1 than a beginning to season 2.

I was kinda thrilled to see Molly Parker show up, as I hadn't seen her in the last decade since Alma Garret and the rest of Deadwood fell victim to the ratings beast. Garret started slowly, but grew into a favorite of mine as the show progressed. I'm already intrigued by what Parker's Jackie Sharp could bring. I'm a little less sanguine about the storyline overall, since the essence of the show seemed to be Frank's maneuvering within the halls of Congress as a leader but not the leader. I thought there was still a lot of ore to mine in that vein. By assuming the role of VP (no one, and I mean no one, aspires to that office so this is clearly just a story step toward what Frank and Claire's "goals" have been this whole time), he's in the same quandary: he can influence the shots, but not call them. In that respect, the story dynamic hasn't markedly changed, but it's still a pretty rapid departure from what seemed to be the core of the idea. How long would people be willing to watch Frank stroke legislation in amoral fashion until HoC became a funhouse mirror version of The West Wing (all preach, no party)? I dunno. I guess we'll find out.

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