Is anybody else kinda-sorta done with House of Cards? Not literally but figuratively. Season three is a real letdown, but not because the Netflix series is, in the words of one reviewer, too “bleak” or negative or dark.
It’s the exact opposite: House of Cards is going softer than President Frank Underwood’s gut. The first two seasons were a palate-cleansing, tit-for-tat inversion of Aaron Sorkin’s cloyingly earnest West Wing, where even the bad guys tended to be good-hearted, if ideologically misguided. But in just three seasons of House of Cards we’ve gone from Underwood (Kevin Spacey) not thinking twice about shoving under a train the unethical journalist he was fucking to a world where he actually takes seriously the idea of a federally funded jobs program that will—finally! seriously! emphatically!—end unemployment as we know it. He actually seems to earnestly want to do something for people and not simply because it will give him more power. Hell, at one point, he echoes FDR talking about how the “country needs bold, persistent experimentation” to turn the economy around and approaches his “America Works” program as something other than the shovel-ready malarkey the old Frank would have gleefully exulted.
Even more disappointing is the devolution of First Lady Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) from a ruthless operator who puts Agrippina the Younger to shame into a latter-day Lady Macbeth filled with doubts about her and her husband’s patently unredeemable actions. “We’re murderers, Francis,” she says at one point in the new season—as if that’s a bad thing.
What’s going on here might be called the “Archie Bunker Effect,” and it’s no prettier than when All in the Family’s protagonist would belch loudly after chugging a beer while sitting in his favorite living room chair. When All in the Family started in the early 1970s, its protagonist was supposed to hold up a mirror to America and depict the petty and base racism, sexism, you-name-it-ism of the working class. Bless their hearts, Hollywood big shots such as creator Norman Lear just wanted to ennoble the little people.
“By giving bigotry a human face, Lear believed, his show could help liberate American TV viewers. He hoped that audiences would embrace Archie but reject his beliefs,” wrote The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum in an essay inspired by Saul Austerlitz’s 2014 book Sitcom. But as Nussbaum puts it, “‘A funny thing happened on the way to TV immortality: audiences liked Archie,’ Austerlitz writes. ‘Not in an ironic way, not in a so-racist-he’s-funny way; Archie was TV royalty because fans saw him as one of their own.’” Probably even worse for Norman Lear, in many ways the ultimate limousine liberal, was that the show’s resident liberal mouthpiece, Mike “Meathead” Stivic (brilliantly portrayed by Rob Reiner), was the show’s true laughingstock.
But if there’s something more frustrating than fans misunderstanding a character and a show’s dynamics, it’s when producers do. All in the Family quickly became increasingly less funny and more preachy until it finally transmogrified into the godawful Archie Bunker’s Place. That last, comedy-free permutation was set at a bar Archie owned and operated. He still mangled the language (gynecologist became “groinacologist,” for instance) but Archie was now a standup guy who literally took in and cared for orphans.
Similarly, the third season of House of Cards spends a hell of a lot of time humanizing the Underwoods and other characters. To be sure—spoiler alerts!—recovering alcoholic and chief of staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) is still capable of going on booze-and-sex benders and killing innocent people, but even he thinks twice before finally dispatching the prostitute Rachel, a loose thread whose existence threatens the president’s reelection.
For all that, we are reminded time and again—and without irony—that leaders and policymakers are constantly balancing an impossible array of interests and tradeoffs. Even the despicable Russian President Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelson) turns out to be a complicated man who deep down really does want world peace. Domestically, he doesn’t imprison homosexuals because he’s anti-gay—hell, some of his cabinet ministers are gay, he confesses to Frank, and his nephew is too! He imprisons gays because it’s what conservative, religious Russians, who have suffered so much under post-Communism, want.
Like the titular Russians in that old maudlin Sting song, it turns out Petrov loves his children too. Several of the characters, including ball-busting Underwood staffer Remy Danton and Deputy Minority Whip Jackie Sharp, either walk away from politics altogether, trim their career ambitions, or recoil in disgust at exactly what they’ve been doing for the entirety of the series.
Do we really want the characters in House of Cards to start developing consciences and to grow into moral actors? Please, the whole kick of the show is precisely that its universe is inhabited only by ethical gargoyles. If we wanted morality tales in which protagonists learn and grow, we’d be watching the Disney Channel or stealing copies of William J. Bennett’s The Book of Virtues from our local library.
As my Reason colleague Peter Suderman argued last fall, we live in a golden age of episodic dramas precisely because “murder, treachery, and mayhem” are running free and wild, and creators are no longer overly worried about trying to moralize misdeeds into some pat lesson about virtue and redemption. If the first season of HBO’s True Detective ultimately disappointed (and it did), it was precisely because it pulled back in the end from fully inhabiting the relentlessly unjust and aimless universe it sketched out in its first episodes.
At least since the heyday of Tony Soprano, American viewers have been invited not simply to tolerate but to root for protagonists who are amoral when not purely evil. Indeed, the most electrifying TV dramas of the past dozen-plus years—shows as varied as Breaking Bad, Damages, Scandal, and Peaky Blinders—demand that viewers not simply identify with wrongdoers but actively cheer for them to get away with their crimes.
This is not a sign of decadence but a sign that American popular culture has matured, that we no longer insist that all the stories the masses consume teach lessons that apply in the “real” world. Instead, we are comfortable producing and consuming culture through which we imagine ourselves in radically different lives and minds than any we might ever want to encounter in the flesh. Not all art need be this way, of course, but it’s great when some art provides moral escapism that lets us explore the darkest corners of the human heart and mind.
Perhaps most surprisingly, this shift actually began with comedies rather than drama. Think of the quintessential ‘90s sitcom, Seinfeld, which was attacked for its dangerously funny nihilism by the likes of Bill Bennett and Michael Medved and in books such as Shows About Nothing. In episode after episode, the main characters showed themselves incapable of acting morally and showing the least sympathy or empathy for their fellow humans.
Such transgression is precisely why the show was funny, whether it was George’s “barely restrained joy” at the death of his fiancé (which he indirectly caused through his cheapness), Elaine’s stopping to buy candy before visiting her boyfriend in the emergency room, or Jerry’s willingness to end relationships for the most banal of reasons (such as a woman “scooping” her corn niblets while eating her peas individually). Most importantly, the characters never grow or learn from their mistakes. Rather, they enthusiastically repeat them over and over again, to the audience’s benefit.
And then, of course, there is South Park, the Comedy Central cartoon that has aired since 1997. While virtually every episode concludes with a trite homily about what lessons have been learned, the show relentlessly refuses to moralize in the manner to which we’ve all been raised to expect from TV shows. At its best, South Park is set in a world far darker than anything conjured up by either House of Cards or True Detective. In the notorious 2001 episode “Scott Timmerman Must Die,” the awful Eric Cartman tricks a bully who has humiliated him multiple times into eating his parents in a bowl of chili. After Cartman reveals to Tenorman what has transpired, he proceeds to lick the “tears of unfathomable sadness” from the boy’s face. There is no indication that Cartman faces any retribution or feels the slightest pang of remorse (Tenorman gets revenge of a sort only in a video game that was released years later.)
Such a meal, whether served up as comedy or tragedy, is surely not to all tastes. But the willingness of South Park’s creators to squeeze humor out of a most unthinkable act is not just funny but stunning. And the appeal of the first two seasons of House of Cards is precisely that it dispensed with any sort of explanatory or exculpatory context or motivation not just for Frank and Claire Underwood’s tactics or aims but the larger world in which they operate. Like Iago—or serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer, for that matter—there are no good or even partly complete explanations for why they are the way they are. In the dramatic universe of the first episodes of House of Cards, it’s not even right to talk about evil, since it is a world without such distinctions. Everyone is corrupt and fallen and there is interest only in power and control, not salvation.
What a disturbing, difficult, and delicious world for us to inhabit, at least for a while. That world seems to be disappearing in season three of House of Cards, replaced by an altogether more familiar one that we’ve encountered a thousand times before in which bad people grow into good ones and we learn worn-out lessons about power and corruption.
Who knows, maybe by the end of the next season Frank and Claire will have followed the example of Archie Bunker and adopted an adorable orphan kid and started a conventional TV family all their own.