Kevin Spacey’s majority whip Frank Underwood is practically a cartoon. And that’s its second biggest strength.
Spacey plays Underwood as a meld of Mike Huckabee, Bill Clinton and Lucifer, Prince of Darkness. Consider House of Cards a political reboot of the canceled 666 Park Avenue, the devil whispering in ears, signing away souls, pulling strings to command his puppets to his will.
His monologues come out silky and loquacious, wrapped in vivid metaphor and overwritten prose. Take a parody of a slick-talking southern attorney and exaggerate it three times, and you have some sense for Spacey’s performance.
And yet… it’s captivating.
The best part of his portrayal is the cheesiest: Spacey, and Spacey alone, has the power to break the fourth wall, turn to the audience, and tell us all his plan. Sometimes it’s just a wink or a raised eyebrow, other times it’s a full-blown soliloquy about his manipulation. The device, borrowed from theater, is odd enough on television (or whatever Netflix is) to stand out. It’s going for Shakespeare, it’s ends up more Bond villain.
But there’s a place for Bond movies.
You can nitpick House of Cards all you want. No, a leaked draft of an education bill wouldn’t be a gangbuster above-the-fold story on inauguration day. No, journalists don’t walk up to sources and explicitly offer the entire sum of their integrity to politicians they’ve met for the first time. The show is essentially set in a fantasy world, sure as Middle Earth or the forest moon of Endor, where politics, punditry, unions, charities and the human condition have very few similarities to our own.
But realism shouldn’t always be used to define great art. Rather, “great art” shouldn’t always be used to define great art. There’s a place for foie gras and there’s a place for Taco Bell Beef Baja Chalupas. Great fast food can be delicious too.
House of Cards is not Mad Men or the Sopranos, and it shouldn’t be judged by their metric. It’s a closer fit with Prison Break, Con Air, 24, or Revenge. It’s a crackling good yarn — which is a different, but not necessarily lesser, standard for “great art.”
It doesn’t mean that House of Cards is immune to criticism: Most of the surrounding characters are nearly as vibrant as Spacey’s, and some of the other plots drag down the show’s momentum. Underwood is begging to be brought low, for his elaborate plans to backfire, but for at least the first half of the first season of House of Cards, everything just falls into place. Entertaining shows need conflict and suspense, and, as addictive as House of Cards is, there’s not yet enough of either.
But don’t dismiss the show for its silliness. Praise it for precisely that reason.