Monday (5/20/13) 8:18pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.
[Nearly a month has passed since my last update; honestly, I have barely watched anything.]
TV: House of Cards (2013) [1x07-1x13]
House of Cards (2013) [1x07-1x13]
This is the second half of the netflix remake of the 1990 BBC political thriller, which stars Kevin Spacey as a ruthless congressman.
It's instructive that I had a lot of trouble finishing that sentence. I wanted to write something analogous to the British show, which would've been "a ruthless MP bent on revenge against the PM". But... no, Underwood doesn't seem bent that way. I tried "fighting to gain the vice-presidency." But... no, while that turns out to be the end goal of Underwood's elaborate Rube Goldberg of a plan, it's not something he really salivates over. Hell, *nobody* dreams of being *vice*-president. I tried retreating to "who will stop at nothing to get ahead," but that was so vague as to add nothing. He really wants to do the things he wants to do.
So I left it as a full stop. We know that he's a ruthless congressman. But there's not a really strong plot for him to participate in.
That's one of the reasons I hated his elaborate scheme to get the vice-presidency. So, his plan is: (1) get Peter Russo to run for governor of Pennsylvania; (2) get his campaign to self-destruct close to the last minute; (3) get the VP to step down (!) to take up the campaign; (4) get the president to name him as the new VP; (5) ensure the VP wins the governorship. Yeah. 'cos that makes sense.
Jesus. I do not want this man running a goddamn hot dog stand.
So it strains credibility. But more to the point, it means that, throughout most of the series, you don't know what Frank Underwood wants, or what he's doing to get it. You just know that he's doing... stuff. He's moving things into places for... reasons. Do I care how things are going to turn out? No, because I don't even know what the possible outcomes are. Do they raise the stakes steadily? Maybe they do. But generally, it's hard to raise the stakes on whether the hero will accomplish a goal you don't know about by means that nobody ever explains.
As villains go, I respect improvisors more than planners. I respect Iago, who keeps desperately thinking on his feet over and over again, and barely succeeding based on his keen perception of the characters around him, more than Underwood, who rarely faces a significant threat, and generally watches the steps of his ever-so-elaborate plan keep falling into place. I want to watch the screenwriter make things *harder* for the protagonist, not easier.
My complaints about the first half
still hold. This still feels like a movie, with largely functional supporting characters (rather than idiosyncratic, nuanced, or deep ones), and with its very easy-to-follow focus on one big plot that spends thirteen hours inching from point A to point B.
They actually do attempt a bit of TV-like behavior, with an episode that has Underwood going back to his alma mater... and it's a spectacular failure. This is partly because it's structurally weird -- if you've done a largely non-episodic show for eight hours, detouring into a self-contained episode feels wonky. But mainly it's because the side trip is unmotivated. A TV show focuses on finding stories that force the characters into new circumstances, or force the show to explore places we haven't seen before. Maybe the next step in his diabolical plot to achieve the... vice-presidency (Sigh.) means Underwood *has* to go explore his past at the Sentinel. But you don't just arbitrarily send the story there for no reason -- that means my already-marginal engagement with the plot (or what passes for it) just disappears.
The most bizarre thing, for me, was that they were trying to humanize Underwood -- something that would have been unthinkable in the British series. There was never a kumbaya moment for Urquhart -- if anything, you saw his humanity in his mounting shock at the things he himself was doing to get ahead. But there was never a need to make him warm and fuzzy. They never had him sing a lovely barbershop-quartet number. Mind you, I'm all for finding new facets of characters, but there's an art to that -- especially if you are working this kind of paradox, where you introduce new characteristics that seem to contradict the known ones. In this case, they just make Underwood seem weakly-defined and vague.
Towards the end, they did introduce one character I liked: Tusk. I liked that he wasn't just handily defeated by Underwood in short order -- he at least put up a little bit of a fight -- and he had some character elements that surprised me. His policy that his subordinates could only call him to pose single, yes-or-no questions for example -- that was surprising, and yet it felt like something a high-powered CEO might actually do.
But then that leads us into the ending. The ending of the British show is a dramatic nail-biter, with a horrific climax that I remember to this day. The American version... just sort of... stops. Claire is facing a lawsuit, and... yeah, that's unresolved. Zoey has found some evidence that maybe Underwood did something bad, and... nothing's really happened with that yet. And Underwood himself -- hold on to your hat -- he's been told that, later on, provided that Matthews wins Pennsylvania, he, Underwood, would serve Matthews' term... as vice president.
I know. You best climb back into your seat, 'cos that high-powered, dramatic turn of events just blew you out of it, right?
I didn't expect the finale to quietly fizzle, because they wrote and shot this entire show as a single block of production. They had all the advantages of knowing where they were going, so theoretically, they could pick something spectacular and carefully construct the path to get there.
The disadvantage is that this can give a show a sort of lazy, airless quality. A show that makes things up as it goes along can feel risky and surprising -- LOST
, for example, delighted in painting themselves into corners, with plot developments that made the audience and writers alike wonder how they could even continue the show. Or Community
had a restless feeling of discovery over its first season, as it tried and discarded different plotlines, different combinations of characters, so that not only were you watching a show, you were watching a show come together.
With House of Cards
, there's no meta-story here. There's no excitement about how the show itself is going to evolve. There's no worry about whether the plot has gotten itself into a completely unresolvable knot. Instead, there's just the plot, inching ahead, moving deliberately, surprising no one.
But you'd think they'd at least be able, then, to bring it all together for a powerful ending. After all, a show like The Wire
was put together in a similar matter, and with that advantage, it created an amazing intricate plot that worked towards a strong ending every year. Instead, House of Cards
chose not to really end things at all -- no doubt a pitch for second season, wherein all these unresolved plot threads (which are yet not cliffhangers, either) can linger limply into another year.
For next time: I'm finally watching season five of Red vs. Blue
-- AKA the final season of The Blood Gulch Chronicles
, and it's a lot of fun. Again, I should probably start watching some Much Ado
adaptations for the upcoming production of Fakespeare
contemplative · Music: