I’ll begin this review of the new season of House of Cards by telling you some things you won’t find in episodes one through three: any reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, any debates over immigration policy or any nod to the populist frustration that has served as the catalyst for Bernie Sanders’s “political revolution.” For a show that purports to be a dramatization of contemporary American politics, in an election year, these omissions seem like massive missed opportunities.
Replacing current themes in these early noir-ish episodes is a different kind of politics, one that elevates the memories of past decades and centuries to the first importance. It’s as if the show’s writers decided that continuing a contemporary political drama was just too hard, and embarked on a slick update of The Day of the Jackal, with frequent allusions to an oil shortage as the worst problem afflicting the American people. Indeed, one of President Underwood’s key campaign speeches pivots on the phrase “do you remember 1973?” Most of us don’t.
I happen to enjoy the classic film dramas of the 70s that House of Cards is evoking, and I give its team credit for holding my interest. The cinematography is carefully considered, with a strong eye for visual framing and character development, and reminds me of critically lauded movies like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.
Still, it troubles me that the show avoids current issues so assiduously, and that it treats political life as little different from a Real Housewives-type reality show. It contains many scenes of politicos scheming in limousines (and notably almost none sitting in party meetings, working in legislative committees, making fundraising calls or drafting emails to supporters). The idea that politicians might have to respond to demands from activist groups or change their positions on hot-button questions (it’s happened frequently in this election cycle) is strikingly absent from this story.
The show, I think, wants to resuscitate the lost glory of the Democratic Party circa 1964, when social mores were very different and leaders like Lyndon Johnson could win massive — if fleeting — popularity just by championing the extension of civil rights to disenfranchised groups. It seems to go without saying that all the major power players in this world will be sleeping with each other in various “swinging” arrangements, a Washington Camelot that includes lobbyists and journalists. The other side of this coin appears when the show continually hypes the “danger” of the Underwoods getting divorced, which just falls flat in our time, when (for example) Russ Feingold is very likely to win back his Senate seat in Wisconsin, his divorce in 2005 notwithstanding.
On balance, I am underwhelmed by the beginning of this House of Cards season. In chaotic political times like the present, the show gives us a picture of American politics which is eye-catching but fundamentally fake. It may take a long time for dramatists to catch up with what’s going on in the world today; until then, going far back into history is an alternative. Danton, a tense 1983 political drama about the French Revolution, is a film I recommend to fill this gap. It deals with fear and the volatility of popular opinion in a way that American TV writers haven’t really mastered.