‘House Of Cards’: Season 1 Review

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We’re only talking about House Of Cards because of its method of delivery. It’s a slightly below average show that is only getting large press because of it’s revolutionary mode of having the entire first season available at one time on the streaming service Netflix. Well, there’s the Kevin Spacey and David Fincher draw as well, but even big stars like that get washed over after awhile. That’s the thing though, Netflix knew they needed to play it safe, having a show with equal draw to all demographic as their first foray into original television. House Of Cards is a straight-down the middle show, not too controversial to appeal to all, but with some racy elements to satisfy the “cable” drama type viewers, everybody likes political intrigue and behind-the-door dealings, and like I said earlier, has the draw of Spacey and Fincher with a great actor and an auteur with his own stylistic flourishes. Hemlock Grove is too niche and genre to start out with and altough Arrested Development has devoted fans, it’s too segregated to start out of the gate with it. House Of Cards is perfect because it’s just so average, not terrible, but no “Sopranos,” ‘Breaking Bad,’ or ‘The Shield.’ either, it’s just there.

On a more base content level, ‘House Of Cards’ is like ‘Entourage.’ Yes, that HBO “comedy” series of a few months back with a couple good seasons at the start, and some godawful ones that killed its early success. More specifically, Kevin Spacey’s character Frank Underwood is exactly like Adrian Grenier’s Vinny Chase in that aforementioned show. At the start of any given episode or season of ‘Entourage’ Vinny and his crew might be faced with getting fired from a movie, or getting into money troubles or with the law, but rest assured these problems or obstacles agains the main character aren’t faced for long, by the end of the episode or season, everything is neatly and easily tied up, and Vinny remains on top of the world with no problems. This is how House Of Cards treats Frank Underwood, he might get down for the better part of an episode, but always comes out on top, unscathed and better than everybody else. Nothing drags him down for an extended period of time. Whether it’s troubles with an eduction bill and its opponents, his handling of Peter Russo or his maneuvering into a possible Vice-Presidency slot, he never faces obstacles that have everlasting repercussions. It’s hard to get behind or invest yourself in a character or show when the dramatic tension and events are always skewed towards the main characters’ victories, and by sticking to this plan it ruins surprises or twists, or in actuality makes them non-existent as the end result can be clearly seen as choreographed to Underwood’s end.

Whereas it was hard for me to fully understand the characertization of Underwood and how he was being manipulated to an easy end by the writers, Corey Stoll’s character Peter Russo who was running for Governor of Pennsylvania became  my favourite character and best storyline of the entire show. Russo was a flawed as a drug addict and alcoholic, but who at his heart was a good man who wanted change for his constituents, and after getting clean was well on the way towards his goals. Of course, Underwood was behind the scenes pulling the strings and ultimately led to his death, both physically and strategically. Russo worked as a character and storyline because there was always a tinge of uncertainty, whether it be with his addictions, his family and significant other relationships, his dealing as a political leader and connections to the larger world of politics. Nothing was set in stone with Russo, and unlike Underwood who you could always see the directions of his moves, Russo could go either way, and it was understandable within the show and believable for him either way to fall back or spring forward. Corey Stoll did fantastic work in his limited run, and I’m concerned for the show going forward that its best element of the season and one which was the most consistent is by and large gone.

I enjoy Robin Wright as an actor, and she was largely good in this, but was hardly  given anything of great heft to do, and was subsequently left hanging around the sidelines. I’d love for her to take a step forward in the next season and get an actual, you know, storyline where she can stretch her legs (figuratively and literally would be nice……) and maybe become an antagonistic force to her husband or others, as it seemed the way they pushed her slightly in the first season. Her relationship with her husband is interesting in their love for each other running alongside a equal parallel of distance and separation between the two. Broadening this out into a storyline or a catalyst for a motivation on her end towards her husband, with lasting ramifications would do wonders to separate herself and give her some room to operate. I’m a fan of Kate Mara as well, she’s a decent actor and fine to look at, and although that’s what we got to start the show, she became more and more a problem and nuisance as the season went on. At first she was a main component of the show, forcing her way up the newspaper ranks, beginning a sexual relationship with Underwood in exchange for scoops that she used to further herself. Unfortuantely, this fizzled into nothing, and her character had little to no bearing on the events of the close of the season. Usually these storylines would dovetail with the larger goings-on, but nothing fell from it that was worth any weigh at all. She just remained on the fringes and further drifting away from the centre of the show. It seems like she’s being set up to further dig into Underwood’s administration now that they are at odds, it could be fun, who knows, all I do is that they should’ve killed her off instead of Russo.

House Of Cards is just there, it doesn’t really push anything forwards too much and is nothing we haven’t seen in a thousand other shows. It just has an inside edge and advantage, not because of its content, but because how we were exposed to it and supposed to view it. These outside factors shouldn’t affect how we understand the show, view and criticize it, but unfortunately in some circles it seems like it has. It has the potential to be a great show as long it doesn’t wallow in the storylines and easy decisions that will guarantee viewers, but never pushing into anything worthy of thinking about or reading into beyond entertainment and escape. I think they could do it, but I really doubt they want to.

‘The Americans’: Intertwining Relationship Drama And Action

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No matter the show you watch, there’s always going to be elements of exploration of relationships, whether it be romantic, friendly, antagonistic, work-related, or whatever combination you can dream of. These relationships are the connective tissue to learning about specific characters and deepening our knowledge of them. Now each show is different of course, and carries their own variety or depth of exploring these relationships. A more action-orientated show like 24 will put less emphasis on the development of romantic or even casual relationships building because it is focused more on thrills and action. Of course, these developments will pop up, especially over the long run of a serious, but are infrequent and not one of the shows main tenants. Soapier shows on the other hand like Downton Abbey are built off of these webs of relationships, rivalries and family ties. The narrative itself is often spun out of these connections and establishes changing in character goals and often the shifting of paradigms. Procedural shows such as Law & Order and Numb3rs (a prime example I like to use for this) are always focused on a case-a-week type structure, but always have some tag or coda at the end, that is divorced from the case and reveals something about the personal life of a main character.

I bring this all up because balancing these relationships is hard to do and integrating it so faithfully that it plays intelligently off the narrative structure of the series is something hard to do. Action shows are mainly focused on thrilling, comedies have interconnected relationships but are mainly after the joke and soapier shows trend in the direction of putting these relationships at the forefront, but often end up being silly and over the top like soaps usually are. Applying the depth of relationship building of not only a family but also of a romantic idea and weaving that directly into the main plot of an overarching show is quite hard to do while giving equal credence to both sides of the coin.

The Americans, an obvious candidate for best show of the year, manages to be focused on its narrative plot of two soviet spies who pose as a married couple in the United States during the Cold War, and the familial ties that bind. On the face of things the show is billed and is primarily about these two married Russian spies, Elizabeth and Philip, who are intent on mining information from the American government in order to pass it back to their homeland in gaining the upperhand in the Cold war. The show is serialized, but has some elements of procedurals where one mission is the focus of an episode and is closed off, albeit with some loose ends to keep the overarching story forward. Now this would be a fine action thriller all by itself, but because of the unique dynamic of Philip and Elizabeth who were arranged and paired together and are forced to raise kids around this to maintain their cover, everything gets an entirely different layer. They obviously have grown together and grown a special sort of kinship over the years, having posed like this for so long, but the actual real depth of their love for each other is always fluctuating, if it even exists at all. It seems one moment they’re completely trying to make things work, with legitimate feelings, until Philip has to sleep with a government secretary to gain information, something that again unsettles Elizabeth into what if any their feelings and relationship to each other means. The added component of having to raise kids, and you know, do actual parenting shit like feeding them, getting them to school etc. etc. can’t be ignored. The unsettling of their relationship feeds into their “job” and how they work together, something never admitted by either side, but growing into their trials and tribulations in trying to complete missions.

Bringing this all around, The Americans works so well in establishing, breaking down and servicing both romantic and family relationships because it is tied so intrinsically to the main conceit of the continuing narrative. Their relationship quibbles and spats aren’t something that is secluded to one section of the episode and never brought up again, but rather more like a boiling pot of water that slowly simmers throughout a mission or event, and can boil over at any instance depending on their position with each other and causing the ability to compromise a mission. This is serious business for them, being an undercover Russian spy in the 1980s might be the worst job outside of facing the dynasty New York Islanders or Edmonton Oilers. Elizabeth becomes unsure of Philip’s commitment to the cause, him being more sympathetic to capitalistic ideas, causing her to think about turning him in and telling their handlers. Every single personal decision in the family or between them as a couple often has significant bearings on their professional life and by proxy the main narrative of the show. By embracing these aspects of relationships and directly injecting it into the “action” plot of the series, The Americans creates a new level of uncertainty and thematic depth to every action taken personally or professionally.