At various points during my forced binge consumption of the sixth and (thankfully) final season of “House of Cards,” I fully expected Monty Python’s Graham Chapman to march into the frame in a British army uniform, barking out: “Stop it, it’s silly!”
The Netflix blockbuster, which has won dozens of major awards, has become a parody of itself; a thriller that rarely thrills, devoid of drama due to an implausible plot and all the political relevance of an “I like Ike” bumper sticker.
The show’s creators (and presumably its surviving stars) were apparently so determined to forge ahead with this eight-episode denouement that they lost sight of what made its first seasons so gripping: Frank Underwood – the ruthless politician from South Carolina who lies, murders and blackmails his way to the White House.
Underwood’s character, of course, paid for the crimes of the actor who portrayed him. The multiple allegations of sexual harassment against Kevin Spacey left Netflix with no choice but to suspend filming of the sixth season and cut its ties with the disgraced actor.
That left the producers of “House of Cards” with a dilemma: Bring the show to a rather abrupt end – or go on without Spacey and hope that the show’s new chief protagonist – Underwood’s wife, Claire, played by Robin Wright – could fill the (ahem) space.
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It’s hard to blame them for putting their faith in Wright. She is an exceptionally talented actor and she’s not at fault for the show’s many failings. Like the scientists in “Jurassic Park,” the producers were so preoccupied trying to prove they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.
They shouldn’t have. There are moments that are so preposterous one can’t help but wonder whether Armando Iannucci was brought in as a plot consultant. So much is going on that it feels as if the producers are trying to distract us from the inanity of the plot: Look, here’s a subplot about oligarchs accessing all the data on our smartphones with an innocuous-looking app. In one episode, POTUS is seen waiting in the darkened apartment of another character – lurking in a corner like some clichéd Bond villain.
In another episode, there are several long scenes set during a wake for one of the characters whose “death” is the result of a tortuous plot device. Throughout these scenes, almost all the main characters are conveniently gathered in the same place, allowing them to exchange meaningful glances across crowded rooms and snatch brief conversations with each other at the buffet table.
The early seasons of “House of Cards,” as well as the BBC original and the novel that inspired them both, have been described as Shakespearian. There are lively online debates over whether the show is nothing more than a modern rendering of “Macbeth.” So when one of the characters says that President Hale – Claire took her maiden name after Frank’s death – “can’t decide if she’s Lady Macbeth or Macbeth,” it was needlessly self-referential and obnoxious.
The show tried to bequeath Frank Underwood’s most disarming tactic – breaking the fourth wall and taking the audience into his confidence – to his widow. She spoke directly to camera on several occasions, making sure to let the audience know that she knew Frank also spoke to them. She even told them that, unlike him, she would tell them the truth. But the writers are so enamored of the fourth-wall device that they allow another character to try it on for size. The only funny moment in the whole show comes when that character decides that breaking the fourth wall isn’t his style.
Too much, too late
There’s not an actor alive who could add a sorely missing dimension to Claire Underwood/Hale’s character. The writers tried to give her a backstory, but, having neglected to do so for the first five seasons, it was too much, too late. Inspired by recent successes like “Sharp Objects,” Claire was given the whole treatment: traumatic incident with a group of boys in a forest, act of extreme pre-adolescent violence, terrible parents. But it was forced, and never felt like anything more than an afterthought.
Similarly, the president’s grand gesture – firing her entire cabinet and drafting exclusively female replacements – was as subtle as a Donald Trump campaign rally.
A very different television show was also recently forced to soldier on without its main attraction: “Roseanne,” the much-loved blue-collar sitcom starring Roseanne Barr.
At the risk of incurring Barr’s wrath on Twitter – she has something of a reputation for expressing and creating outrage with her tweets – let’s just say that her involvement in the reboot of the show was abruptly curtailed by what she herself described as a “bad joke” about an Iranian-born African-American woman who served as senior advisor to President Barack Obama.
The two shows’ handling of their absent stars could not have been more different. “House of Cards” was dominated by the ghost of Frank Underwood; “The Connors,” the renamed continuation of “Roseanne,” incorporated its star’s demise with compassion and skill. While Frank Underwood’s death was the catalyst for absurd and trite plot twists, Roseanne Connors’ was used to reflect on the opioid epidemic that is afflicting millions of Americans.
“House of Cards” started off as a Shakespearian tragedy. It comes to an end as a farce – without the laughs.