The first season of “House of Cards” achieved the dual feat of instantly emerging as a first-rate drama while simultaneously being seriously overrated – riding the “Netflix reinvents TV” angle and juicy inside-the-Beltway bits to front-page coverage. No fools they, season two generally proceeds with more of the same, exhibiting a show with abundant strengths – foremost among them Kevin Spacey’s showy performance as an unscrupulous politician – but also underplayed weaknesses, including a continuing failure to present its scheming protagonist with equally matched foes. Dense and smart, “Cards” is still partially skating by on reputation – and for Netflix’s purposes, that’s good enough.
Netflix is understandably concerned about early reviews spoiling the fun (the show won’t premiere until Valentine’s Day), slapping a high-handed embargo and nondisclosure agreement on the first four episodes. Yet except for a few twists the series seamlessly picks up where it left off, so those gaga about Spacey’s Francis Underwood – the congressman who has wheedled his way to within a heartbeat of the presidency – will have every reason to feel that way again.
As usual, Underwood goes about the business of charming, cajoling and coercing those he must bend to his will, while this season’s cast includes a young congresswoman (Molly Parker) who’s no slouch in that department either. Meanwhile, Underwood’s efforts on issues like negotiating a sweeping budget deal – in the process bargaining over entitlement benefits – will certainly resonate among those with a taste for seeing Washington issues dramatized, albeit with much better-looking players.
Still, as shrewd and ruthless as Underwood is, it remains something of a drawback that almost nobody else in a town built on power seems particularly adept at recognizing this or combating him – including, it should be noted, the sitting president (Michael Gill), who also has a billionaire confidant (Gerald McRaney, reprising his first-season role) planting bugs in his ear. When McRaney’s character complains that the Commander in Chief is “easily manipulated” in a later episode, that almost doesn’t do his malleability justice.
Like the finest premium cable dramas, “House of Cards” does proceed along multiple tracks, with an interesting subplot (if not wholly convincing as it progresses) for Robin Wright as Underwood’s equally steely wife. There are also plenty of cameos by D.C. journalists, adding not just a patina of authenticity but also incentive for those outlets – no strangers to self-promotion – to provide the series exposure in venues beyond just the entertainment press.
Ultimately, though, as noted in the season one review, the notion of Washington being venal and corrupt doesn’t feel as edgy as “House of Cards” positions itself to be. Moreover, a cynic could question whether even a wheeler-dealer of Underwood’s stature could actually make headway in the current polarized political climate.
Stylistically, the early episodes (the first two are written by showrunner Beau Willimon and directed by Carl Franklin) play a bit with the show’s fourth-wall-breaking direct-to-camera device, which was one of those tics inherited from the original U.K. series that worked fitfully at best – and wound up being used with less frequency as season one went on.
In short, the show remains an intriguing mixed bag – albeit one that has already yielded ample dividends to its distributor in terms of publicity and, when paired with subsequent offerings like “Orange in the New Black,” establishing Netflix’s credibility as another premium TV service.
Like its fictional pol, Netflix also managed to achieve all that while largely keeping its cards close to the vest in regard to the show’s popular vote count. In D.C. or TV terms, that’s what you call a winning ticket.