Skip to main content

I don’t want a version. I want a vision.

House of Cards
Season Three

(SPOILERS) Has House of Cards gone off the rails? Was it ever really on them? You have to wonder, given the way the magnificent coldblooded, gloating conceit of Andrew Davies’ original BBC adaptation of Michael Dobbs novel(s) has given way to a show in which the psychopaths touch, feel, grieve and display compassion. It’s possibly a function of the expanded series format, and a crumbling of the start, middle, end trilogy template, but Beau Willimon’s version increasingly feels like a meaner version of sanctimonious, do-gooding The West Wing, which isn’t meant as a compliment.


House of Cardsremains a gorgeous-looking, immaculately produced series, with outstanding performances form Kevin Spacey and (particularly) Robin Wright (not that she’s rewarded, in terms of the risible descent of her character), but the jet black humour has descended to the point of unkempt melodrama, casting about for new plotlines to fill time while the rudderless ship saps the potency from its once virile and virulent leads (even the to-camera asides have diffused).


The warning signs were there last year with the attempts to locate an issue-led subplot for Claire Underwood. But still, the Shakespearean coupling and mutual support between Frank and Claire remained rock solid, in a Macbeth without the madness sense. Doubtless the layering of the characters is at least partly a consequence of the investment the actors are allowed in the show’s development; Spacey is a producer, Wright a three-time director. They’re not necessarily the best judges of what works tonally or in plotting, though. The missteps in Season Three are particularly extravagant ones, such that you wonder if anyone quite has a grasp on what they’re making any more.


I might opine that the show would be a more interesting one if it hamstrung power-crazed Frank by ushering him into the Oval Office only to learn he has no say at all, under the edict of those pulling the strings behind the scenes and overt corporate interests. There are intimations of the latter, of course (such and such senator is the pocket of a particular company, say), and the comment “Sometimes, I think the presidency is the illusion of choice” but, instead of giving Frank anyone to really push against when he reaches the highest office in the land, the writers fall back on fashioning moveable obstacles as place markers. Of course, the argument is that House of Cards isn’t really a political show, it isn’t a satire; it’s simply about the lust for power. Unfortunately, it betrays itself as something else when it staggers into an extended plotline about the Russian premier or gets sidetracked into exploring emotional arcs when there’s a whole lot more meat to be found elsewhere.


There are some decent ideas being played with in terms of Claire’s role re: her husband, but the wisdom of incorporating them in this show with this premise is questionable. Claire should be the icy power behind the throne, unflinching and unmoveable when confronted by any problem or obstacle her more impulsive partner faces. Instead, she’s been considerably weakened by the introduction of her own desire for attention and overt reward. This is, to an extent, commented upon by Frank in the final episode, that she knew the bargain she was entering, but being self-aware about it doesn’t make the idea any better. Claire comes across as petty and small-minded with her demand for an ambassadorship that makes her husband appear nepotistic. She then acts in a wholly short-sighted and impulsive manner in her subsequent decisions to speak out when political prisoner Corrigan hangs himself and then not show for Frank’s nomination speech/choice to leave the White House in the final episode.


Again, it’s not as if the writers aren’t aware of the trap they’ve set themselves, and Frank’s explosive confrontation with Claire in the finale is the kind of fiery behaviour we’ve been waiting for all season. But withdrawing from the position that these characters are a couple of shrewd, calculating sociopaths who will stop and nothing to get what they want and replacing it with a couple with standard foibles, jealousies and tiffs reduces what makes the material special in the first place. There’s a scene where Claire forces the Russian ambassador to meet with her while she’s sitting on the toilet; it’s supposed to be a taking back of power by the patronised and belittled woman, but like so much of this season it comes across as contrived and trivial. The writers have hobbled her. The scene in the finale where she is sitting in Frank’s office is presumably designed to have Hillary-esque significance (soon after she is told she’d be a good president), but it’s difficult to care when she’s been so systematically disassembled her.


It’s much the same with Frank and Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks), the author he hires to write “America Works”. It’s the decision of someone who lacks Frank’s calculated, tight control. He seems sloppy and foolish to reveal his secrets to this man (to even consider intimacy with him), and it’s the decision of writers bending over backwards to manoeuvre their antihero into a dramatic situation rather than staying true to his dark nature. His America Works idea also feels like an only-in-TV invention, even if the repercussions of its enforcement have some currency.


Elements of the Middle East peace talks plotline that takes up much of this season are quite well played, but it only ever feels like a distraction from Frank really getting his hands dirty. There’s a lot of fun to be had watching Lars Mikkelsen’s icy cool Viktor Petrov, showing mettle and resolve Frank lacks. In particular, his honing in on Claire as Frank’s weak spot is almost a meta-way of discussing the failings of the season as a whole (Claire is a “much better First Lady” than an ambassador). But the plotline generally is a diversion, and it’s only when the focus returns to Frank jostling for leadership that the Season Three actually get a kick up the arse and remember where its at.


So Frank against the ropes, being told he isn’t wanted as president, and the machinations that result as Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker, excellent as ever) and Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) throw their hats in the ring, are a reminder of how good and twisty the show can be; sides change, deals are hatched and ploys are pulled off or fail (notably in this season, when Frank shows his ire, first towards Jackie and then Claire, it has exactly the opposite effect to the one he intends). Generally though, when Dunbar or journo Kate Baldwin (Kim Dickens) cite how venal and ruthless Frank is, they’re flattering him. This is a show stooping to have Frank go and seek advice from a priest and then spit on a statue of Jesus that proceeds to topple over. It’s as clumsy and unsubtle as the production values are flawlessly glossy.


Season Three doesn't really hit a groove until the eleventh episode and the presidential debates, and then the possibility that Doug will give Claire’s journal to Dunbar (“I’ll slit her fucking throat in broad daylight” is Frank at his expressive best). The finale is a bit of a fumble, though, with the conclusion to the seemingly interminable Doug recovery/search for Rachel plotline in sharp focus. It’s one that really didn’t need an entire season to play out (Michael Kelly is great, but that goes without saying).  


Hopefully the fourth season can get back to Frank being really evil, since that’s the show at its coal-hearted best. We don’t want to see Frank and Claire touch and feel and empathise, it’s the opposite of who they should be. There’s also the concern that there may not be that much further to go with the series generally. Even the original was considerably better during the climb to power than in the holding of it. If Season Four goes further down the route of manufacturing sub-West Wing lash-ups of real world political scenarios it will be beyond hope of righting itself, squandering its potential in a toothless middle ground.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music (1965) (SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008) (SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanley was well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley , our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“ too syrupy ”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog.  Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has c