zoe-barnes

The Signs as House of Cards Characters

Aries: President Garrett Walker

Taurus: Doug Stamper

Gemini: Claire Underwood

Cancer: Rachel Posner

Leo: Janine Skorsky

Virgo: Zoe Barnes

Libra: Christina Gallagher

Scorpio: Edward Meechum

Sagittarius: Lucas Goodwin

Capricorn:Frank Underwood

Aquarius: Peter Russo

Pisces: Linda Vasquez

House of Cards isn’t that great.

I’m a little late to the party on this one, but recently I’ve been working my way through the second series of House of Cards and I really haven’t been impressed. In fact I’m so unimpressed, uninspired, unfulfilled and un-excited by the whole thing that I’m not sure I can even be bothered to finish it. After all, I already know he ends up as president. Spoilers (as if you care). Thanks Twitter (as if I care).

I don’t really mind that it’s sensational and unrealistic. That’s rarely an issue with TV drama, even when it takes the real world as its setting and needs a veneer of credibility to work. If you want a documentary about the workings of the American congress, look elsewhere. I am under no illusions that House of Cards is pure entertainment that just happens to take the U.S machine of state as its setting, and so I’m happy for them to throw as many anthrax attacks, live TV rape revelations and absurd pieces of senate floor gerrymandering at me as they want. If the writing’s good enough, TV can take me anywhere.

If the writing’s good enough that is, and on House of Cards it just isn’t. Time after time I find myself asking if anyone actually talks like this. I may not be a Washington insider or stateside corporate bigshot (why would I be here if I was?) but I find it very hard to believe that the way these people communicate in real life is as telegraphed, as functional, and as jargony as it is on House of Cards. Not a single character has a distinct voice, not one speech or exchange has anything but the most token whiff of idiosyncrasy, of character. There may be plenty of action, but it becomes very hard to engage with it when the characters are so flimsy and bland.

By the middle of series two you don’t care about any of them and there’s no one to get behind. Long term literally no character has attracted my sympathy, or even frankly, my interest. Frank Underwood and his machinations were entertaining for much of the first series, until I realised that he’s really nothing more than a careerist social climber and probable psychotic. Those much-feted wry asides to camera have a certain power and plenty of dramatic potential, but as the series wears on they are used cack-handedly by the writers, mostly to explain the plot. Asides from these, all we get from Underwood is a lot of soulless management speak, neither sympathetic nor engaging. His cynicism loses its edge and starts to seem dull, lazy, a narrative driver rather than a window into the mind and soul of the political animal.

Underwood’s wife Clare is slightly sympathetic, as a charity executive and rape survivor, but she is also entirely bland. Her incessant talk about ‘goals’ makes her sound like a low-rent motivational speaker. Over time she becomes impossible to like, a vacuous and self-interested drone without the gumption to be truly evil. She and her husband’s inevitable fall from grace may well be satisfying drama when it finally comes, but I don’t know if I can slave through hours and hours and hours of Danish pastry conferences and restrained pseudo-rows about ‘never wanting to compromise’ to get there.

Zoe Barnes was set up in the first series as the audience’s eye, as someone with a bit of depth and something about her. She was sassy, mixed journalistic principle with a steely inner core, and her arc was difficult to project. But then they killed her off, ridiculously early in series two, for no good reason, just to pile more horror onto Underwood’s record. We already knew he was a bad egg. That was definitively established within the first five minutes of series one, when he wrung that dog’s neck. That was great TV, but Zoe’s clumsy murder on the subway by a glasses and fedora-wearing Underwood was not. It achieved nothing, bumping off one of the key players and reducing another to little more than a panto villain. They might as well have given him a curly moustache and a cauldron to cackle over.

Without Zoe, or Peter Russo’s train wreck personal life, with the protagonist turning stale and Doug not delivering on his early promise, all we are left with is Lucas, Zoe’s bad-hair day boyfriend, a character we barely know and who we are now supposed to support, as he teams up with a guinea-pig obsessed computer wonk to try and bring down the second most powerful man in the free world. Which might sound like a romp to any who haven’t seen the show, but which I regret to report makes for pretty uninspired viewing.