Season 3: Professionally mounted, patiently delivered, and mostly quite engaging, so why was I so passive about it?
Watching this third season of House of Cards was an odd experience for me. I had moved passed the stage of expecting it to be the same as the old UK version of the same source material and, although it keeps elements of this, I was fine to meet it on its own ground. This seasons sees Underwood as President – his mission of the last two seasons of scheming and maneuvering seeming to have paid off without a single vote being cast. However an election approaches and it is not a given that he will even secure the nomination of his own party, far less the support of the nation. To tackle both and secure his legacy, he sets out to create an ambitious jobs program, while also dealing with Russia, his wife's own ambitions, and party members circling him with their own agenda.
In terms of general narrative, there is more than enough here to engage. The plots generally have movement, consequence, and a certain amount of intelligence in the writing to produce something that I enjoyed watching. It is also expensively produced and well crafted, so that you do feel this is a "proper" drama with the resources to do it well, which it does. The performances are very strong and feature a consistently good cast doing good work, and there are clever links to the real world (albeit as well with some stupid links to the real world – Pussy Riot's inclusion being clumsy and not working at all). So generally I enjoyed the season and found that it did enough to hold my interest and satisfy me – which really leads me to wonder why I didn't feel more excited by the season, or really motivated by it? Had it been screened over weekly episodes rather than as an instant boxset, I wonder if I would have stuck with it as I did.
Part of this is that I am not sure what it is trying to do. I have always had an issue that the show lacks a cynical heart and is certainly never as satirical or black as it could be; however in this season the lack of this is more evident that ever. There are elements of darkness and harshness that work well (and are actually more effective for not being the norm), but too often the narrative is too "straight", too lacking in anything about it in terms of edge or bite. It is a bit disappointing to watch in this way – particularly when there are elements which offer it the chance to do so much, but yet it prefers to lean back, to be more patient and consistent and straight. As part of this there seems to be a lot more pushing of "character" than there had been before; in some ways this is great because it continues some of the show's strengths, but in other ways it is not so good. Specifically everyone seems to be having some element of personal or emotional conflict or doubt, and again this is all very earnestly presented but yet strangely not compelling at all. The core of the show is the Underwoods though, and this remains its main strength as they are at least engaging in their natural – with Claire in particular being a strong character throughout. This is not to say they are not touched by the weaknesses of the season, but even still they are the best thing about it.
So, an odd season. We have very high production values, a strong cast, a substantial narrative with plenty going on, but yet I felt so very passive towards it for the most part. The lack of real edge to the content and delivery is part of this, but so too is the same lack of clarity in the writing, which doesn't really seem clear what it is trying to do, as it mixes real life, political procedurals, character-driven moments, scheming, darkness, and the ordinary, all in ways that feel inconsistent. It is hard to deny that it is a show of quality in the making, but it is disappointing that it doesn't do more with it and I was surprised that I ended this third season with a certain amount of a shrug.
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