TV Review: House of Cards – Season 3

*Note: This is a gaming & music blog. Occasionally I’ll wander into other avenues of entertainment if I really need to get something off my chest. This is one of those moments.

It all started so wonderfully…

I loved the first season of House of Cards. It was a dark tale of greed and power that centered on the political career of a ruthless senator. Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is more than a politician – he’s an actor. And his stage is Washington D.C.

Season 1 had a charming hook. Every once in a while, Underwood would look straight at the camera and provide commentary for what was happening in the scene. He would either break down the intentions of another character, or slyly reveal how effortlessly he can deceive. There were times that I completely believed his sincerity, only to see him stare coldly into the camera moments later, growling his true thoughts. It was a jarring, but refreshing, way to give us insights into his character.

House of Cards 2
His first time talking directly to us. I’m in.

Thinking back to season 1 of House of Cards, I remember that Frank and Claire were strong, magnetic characters. I was enthralled by how they played people & worked together. There was an alliance there beyond simply husband and wife – they were a dynamic political tag-team. The weakness of that season? The side characters were weak, and lacked depth.

Moving into season 2, the side characters had grown, and now there was a broader cast of people I was interested in, but the Underwoods were rarely in any real danger. I felt that their plan worked out a little too perfectly, and the final scene didn’t have the satisfaction it could have had if there had been a greater amount of struggle to get there. It was a step back from the first season, but it was still intriguing and kept me engaged.

Season 3 is a few cards short of a deck

See what I did there? It’s clever.

Now in season 3, we have established characters, and real threats to Frank & Claire from every angle, but they’ve lost their magic.

House of Cards 3
Oh man, you two were SO FLIPPIN’ COOL! …What happened?

Frank comes across as a weaker man trying to hold on to power. He’s lost his ferocity and edginess to the point that he’s less of a devious sociopath and more a desperate politician. He’s more slimy than scary.

Frank’s special ‘connection’ with the camera lost its charm as well. Yes, he had his moments where he would bring us in for a quick thought or note, but they were less frequent and less meaningful. The result was a character that I didn’t have any strong feelings about. I wanted to either root for or against Underwood, as I had vacillated back and forth on him in the past. This time around, however… I just don’t care about him anymore.

Claire doesn’t even know what Claire wants

On the other hand, Claire is now one of the more confusing characters I’ve seen. I’m all for her ‘ice queen’ stares – it was fun not knowing what she was really thinking. She had a mystery about her that kept her character intriguing. Now we see her as being more self-centered and petty. She expects to be taken seriously, but she makes decisions that are completely counter-intuitive to the goals she boldly declares (especially in the final episode). The things she does at the end are that much more infuriating because she just sits and stares. Claire has begun to look less like an “Ice Queen” and more like “Dazed and Confused.” Is anybody home? What’s going on with her? I like it when a story throws out some curve balls. But when a show allows a character to become that completely contradictory, it undermines any of the quality moments that came before.

Who are all these people?

The time the show spends focused on side characters left a bad taste in my mouth as well. A surprise return character from last year effectively hogs way more screen time than deserved this season. The battle with substance abuse and the search for a character with damning information on the president while recovering from a major injury should be interesting. But I felt like I was trudging through scene after scene, waiting for something of significance to happen. It rarely did.

The most interesting supporting character this season was author Tom Yates (It’s Mickey Doyle from Boardwalk Empire!). He provided a fantastic foil for Frank and Claire to dig more deeply into their history and relationship – or should I say: their “agreement.” His scenes provide some standout moments for the 13 episodes.

House of Cards 1

Spell it out for me

I thought the writing took a step back from past seasons. I once admired the use of nuance & subtlety in these scripts, but it’s been replaced with too much on-the-nose political banter. I like to be challenged to look closer and listen more intently. What this season gave me was very little actual story, and an over abundance of characters explaining things in great detail. My overall impression of the writing is that it felt like a 2nd draft. It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t polished either. It didn’t give the actors enough room to breathe and communicate physically.

Can you tell I was disappointed? Well I was. I almost didn’t make it to the end of the season. I’m glad I did, because there are some great moments in the finale. Unfortunately, there are 12 hours to slog through before anything interesting and dramatic actually happens. Here’s hoping season 4 gets things back up to par with a fantastic 1st and 2nd season. I’d rather pretend season 3 never happened.

Positives:

+Production values are still very high
+Music and sound editing
+Actors all delivered solid performances
+A few good moments throughout the season, with some great moments in the finale

Negatives:

-What happened to Frank and Claire? I don’t love or hate them anymore…
-The scripts needed another edit or two
-The story needed more… story
-The show lost touch with what made the first 2 seasons so magical: the journey.

Score:

I should have played a video game instead. I could have played through The Order: 1886 twice.

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2 thoughts on “TV Review: House of Cards – Season 3”

  1. Well said. I think you captured the sentiment of most HOC fans nicely.

    Seasons 1 & 2 had us hooked. Season 3 – still a great show, still great production value, but to borrow a phrase that Claire threw at Frank in the climatic scene…it’s “not enough.”

    1. That was a good dramatic moment, but I’m still not sure what she was hoping to accomplish…If nothing else, it brought out the “Hulk Underwood” we’d all been waiting to see.

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