Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Politics Of: House of Cards Season 2

All thirteen episodes have been deployed like a cluster-bomb from Netflix's streaming bomb-bay. You can now watch House of Cards Season 2. First we review the show (up through episode 6, anyway) and then we do the politics (which assumes you have seen it).

There will be spoilers for House of Cards Season 1.

House of Cards
Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey, being his magnetic, watchable self), FU, to his friends, is back--you haven't forgotten about him. He hasn't forgotten about you, either. In Season 1 he was the Majority Whip in the US House of Representatives. In Season 2 he's the newly minted Vice President--one heart-beat away from the Oval Office itself ... and he knows it. Is his "eye on the prize"? Certainly looks that way: He's going to be president or, you know, die tryin'.

Frank Underwood is a schemer's schemer. He has plans: both long and short cons. He's certainly more than "likable enough" and has friends--but he'll throw almost anyone under the bus (except maybe Freddy Armstrong (Reg E. Cathey), the guy who runs the rib-joint Frank frequents). Last season he killed his 'protege' and made it look like a suicide. There's a cover-up and some pay-offs--but, you know, it might come out--so is he a bad guy?

At this point? What difference does it make? You love to watch him work--you know you do. In the House of Cards universe we get to see government do things. In one scene there's a thrust-parry-thrust set of procedural maneuvering on in the Senate where some Tea Party senators (one looking more than a little like Ted Cruz) take on Underwood in a high stakes battle for a key Democratic position (uh: raising the age of retirement for entitlements--the House of Cards US flag is, maybe, upside-down* for a reason).

Season One was a bit winding. The long-con Spacey was running took too long to appear and looked pretty unlikely to work (indeed, some of almost had to be improvised)--but by Season 2 the story and plot are tighter. Netflix's not-TV can be sexy (although it isn't on the Premier TV one-sex-scene-per-episode plan, thank God), smart, and shocking. I found Episode One deliciously unpredictable and, with every episode more "on point" than season one, it's a bit like watching a 13 hour drama with increasing tension.

There's nothing I could say about that's as big an endorsement as the fact that Washington DC is, apparently, riveted as well. To be sure, Washington likes reading about itself (and watching itself on TV): apparently Obama likes Homeland and Michelle likes Scandal. On the other hand, everyone likes House of Cards.
A Note On The Pleasure To Pain Ratio (Season 1 Spoilers)
House of Cards is a deep-black comedy. There's little question it is meant to be funny: Spacey talks directly to you. On the other hand, the character quality is so high that you wind up feeling for everyone. Leaving the Underwoods out for a moment, in Season 1, you watch the Capitol Police guy assigned to Frank get screwed over (he needs to take the fall for one of the plans) and then get a second chance (courtesy of Frank needing someone he can now trust because the guy doesn't realized he was used. You (briefly) meet the kids of Peter Russo (who will be betrayed and murdered by Underwood). The show gives us real people and real consequences.

There's a throwaway scene where Robin Wright (Frank Underwood's wife, Claire) watches an elderly woman who is clearly a new employee try to work the register at her coffee shop. The older woman can't quite get it and needs help. Claire has just fired her oldest staff member and sees the future she's likely consigned to laid bare here. This is a comedy--but it's dark.

It was the murder of Russo that was the moral event horizon that made me feel I had to root against Underwood--at least for an episode or two: Charisma is a powerful thing and Spacey buys in bulk. I understand, however, people choosing that moment to punch out. Until then Underwood might be a political animal--but he wasn't a feral one.

To be clear, the killing wasn't exactly mean-spirited: Frank Underwood isn't a sadist--but it was still necessarily mean (he destroyed Russo's life first and then took it when it looked like Russo was going to talk) I thought: I hope I remember how I felt here when this guy eventually goes down: It'll soften the blow.

In Season 2, thus far, there's that same spirit of raw manipulation and Frank's (and company) easy ability with betrayal. According to this interview Beau Willimon looked at Netflix ratings and determined that while a lot of people disliked it because they preferred the original British version (which he wisely assessed as unavoidable) a good chunk of the poor reviews came because of unlikable characters. He decided to own that.

I think this is actually a poor assessment: the problem isn't that the characters are unlikable--the problem is that they're all likable. This goes for Claire who has a grace about her: you don't want to see her ground up and humiliated. It goes for Frank who uses every ounce of charisma Kevin Spacey can radiate to make you like him.

It goes for all the losers too--or, at least, a lot of them (and compared to Frank, in Season 2, everyone's a loser). The pleasure of seeing Underwood win is balanced by the pain of having to watch other people suffer.

This is the point. The show is not trying to describe today's political players--but it is trying to bring out a real, insightful, actual truth about the pursuit of power that is the foundation of politics. House of Cards uses a cynical shell to propagate a viral truth: In today's world people don't literally need to be dying to be getting hurt and you can be a good person (specially if you're a constituent) and all the goodness in the world won't save you from being a pawn in someone's game.

Or, you know, if they're not playing chess, maybe the Ace up their sleeve.

Let's do the politics!

The Politics of House of Cards

Slate writer David Weigel assesses:
The problem is Underwood’s enemies don’t seem to understand politics. The new vice president establishes his power by pushing an entitlement reform amendment through the Republican-controlled Senate—Social Security retirement age raised to 68. This will give the Democratic administration “a win.”

Republicans, chiefly one Tea Party senator, worry that it will deprive them of a “win,” and a key Republican, we’re told, was re-elected after the Tea Party “dumped $10 million” into his super PAC. Democrats worry about getting beaten, too. “If we raise the retirement age,” says one of them, “the AARP will raise hell.” So a fixer gives the AARP $45 million. The bill succeeds, thanks to Frank managing the Senate vote and an ally (Molly Parker, playing Underwood’s whip successor in the House) convincing fellow Democrats they’ll be blamed if the government shuts down.

But they wouldn’t. In our reality, one that also includes Rachel Maddow and Ashleigh Banfield, entitlement reform is popular only with people who take lunch with Pete Peterson, and if the GOP is threatening to shut down the government, the GOP will be blamed for it. Public pressure, which probably just isn’t compelling enough to portray in a soap opera, ruins the strategies of the smartest, coldest operatives.
The House of Cards logo is an upside-down American flag for a reason. That isn't because it's turning Democrats into Republicans (which is what Weigel sort of implies) but rather because the House-of-Cards-verse had to make some decisions about structuring its politics which, decidedly, are not in our reality.

The first was probably to have Spacey begin in the House of Representatives. This was partially because of the name (duh! House of Cards) but also because the show calls back to the BBC production that took place in Parliament. Of the two bodies, the House of Representatives probably comes closer to that.

After that decision it has two key dictates: it must feel real while, at the same time, not devolving into a pointed argument about who will take the blame for today's political realities. It doesn't want to get bogged down in current events (which wouldn't help it at all) and it doesn't want to suddenly get dated as the real world shifts and changes.

In HBO's The Newsroom, we see a (not-real) cable news show that "does the news" and "gets it right." The way they managed that with a similar (but not exact) set of constraints (the news had to feel real) was to hit on the genius move of setting the show in the recent past (like two years ago) and thus having real stories to have their fictional reporters cover.

What House of Cards does with its politics is pretty smart from that point out. The first move it makes is to invert the current make-up of the congress (along with the flag) and make the President (Michael Gill) white. This (a) takes Obama off the table and (b) keeps the Republicans relevant (holding the upper chamber) without having to either make direct commentary on Boehner or Reid.

It then sets up a legislative battle over the age where government entitlements kick in so that we'll recognize the issue (Season 1's battle over education was also recognizable but boring and not especially relevant. Still, it's hard to fault them too much since they were working with a script that wouldn't go to film for a couple of years at that point). When we get to this battle we see that:
  1. The Tea Party still exists and they still scare Republicans. This is interesting (without Obama would we have a Tea Party? I doubt it--but it's one of the great questions of our age that'll never be answered).
  2. The Republicans are still the "Party of No" (on this issue, at least).
  3. The Democrats have to wrangle a bunch of their own (raising the age of retirement is not a slam dunk for the lower chamber either) which gives Underwood and his new protege whip Jacqueline Sharp (who he has, in Underwood style, created so that he can control) something to do.
This is all reasonably savvy film-making and it manages to put familiar players and their usual roles into context with an issue we'll recognize as relevant without actually stepping in real-world politics. That's what House of Cards is doing. The writing off of the AARP with some mega-bucks donation is simplistic--it's shorthand for taking care of special interest groups--but consider that the show does go to great lengths to get its Senate rules-of-order right.

Sex and Power In House of Cards
Unlike Scandal, which doesn't have to make the politics feel real because it is about sex, House of Cards is about power--just like the promo-gif says it is:

Sex, however, does filter in to House of Cards--and not just for ratings. Zoe slept with Underwood to get ahead (and see where that got her). Claire's had abortions and blames one on her former rapist (a general). Claire's nemesis is pregnant and battling for control of Claire's non-profit (which then gets written out of the story faster than Riddick's control of a space army got dumped for Vin Diesel's 3rd movie).

One of the running themes in House of Cards is that when you have sex you are vulnerable. Zoe might be able to blackmail Underwood (turns out: not so much). A political bundler has a kid out of wedlock and it comes back to haunt him. Any woman who gets pregnant is in jeopardy of losing her standing.

The Rise of Data Driven TV
One last thing: apparently the creation of House of Cards as a Netflix property came from data analysis that said something about politics starring Kevin Spacey and directed by David Fincher would be a massive hit. While it seems inevitable now, I think this is, realistically, an odd grouping that indicates that these guys have some mojo.

Of course no data crunching will give you good writing--but having guys like Spacey and Fincher onboard actually help with that (Fincher is likely to push in the direction of a smart script, for example. Spacey may not attach himself to a project that looks ill-thought-out). House of Cards is not-quite-TV (man, if True Detective was out right now I'd be binge-watching that) but it is something like TV.

I think that the success and quality of House of Cards means that this is the beginning of a new kind of entertainment. Netflix can tell when you pause something. When you stop and start--how long it takes you to get through the whole thing, etc. While a lot of that is circumstantial, I suspect the mass of data they are gathering will be used in ways we don't yet understand.

Essentially Netflix isn't looking at a set of movies that are proposed and asking "Which of these is the best?" Instead they're looking deep into the data and asking "What isn't there that needs to be." I think this may result in new things--and, if House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black are indications--good things.

* However, that reason isn't that it gets the politics naively wrong or 'upside-down'/backwards. House of Cards has to do certain things with its political structure because it has Democrats in power but is trying to be thematically resonant to modern day politics.

No comments:

Post a Comment