Frank Un­der­wood trumped by real life pol­i­tics


House of Cards has been usurped by re­al­ity. CNN to­day is vastly more en­ter­tain­ing than any­thing that scripted tele­vi­sion can de­liver

Star­ring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. 13 episodes pre­mier­ing on Net­flix May 30.

Spoiler Alert: Con­tains de­tails of the new and pre­vi­ous sea­sons of House of Cards. Frank Un­der­wood is a killer. We know this be­cause the fic­tional pres­i­dent once shoved a re­porter in front of a sub­way car. Finely and in­dul­gently played by Kevin Spacey, Un­der­wood is mer­cu­rial, cun­ning and the most danger­ous man on tele­vi­sion.

Yet cur­rent events have con­spired to make the in­fa­mous fake pres­i­dent seem re­duc­tive and, im­prob­a­bly, smaller than life.

House of Cards re­turns for a fifth sea­son, with Spacey and first lady Claire Un­der­wood (Robin Wright) as the rulers of an al­ter­nate Camelot, a kind of so­cio­pathic Bill and Hil­lary Clin­ton.

At any other time this would be sub­stan­tive, trippy en­ter­tain­ment. The dark­ness of the show played well dur­ing the seem­ing naïveté of an Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. And then came Don­ald Trump. Spacey plays Un­der­wood on TV like it was writ­ten by Shake­speare, a politi­cian who plays three di­men­sional chess when the other guys are play­ing hop­scotch af­ter a dozen beers.

The beauty of House of Cards was that it took you deep into the bow­els of the West Wing, while our an­ti­hero pres­i­dent van­quished foes like a true Mas­ter of Whis­per­ers. It some­times took an en­tire sea­son to pass a cru­cial piece of leg­is­la­tion us­ing those dark arts. But the de­tails were ex­quis­ite.

Now there is Trump. Sud­denly it’s ap­par­ent that you don’t need ex­pe­ri­ence, or smarts, or even a ba­sic un­der­stand­ing of world af­fairs to be pres­i­dent. While Spacey’s playbook is right out of Machi­avelli’s The Prince, Trump is ab­surdly car­toon- ish, his clumsy ma­noeu­vres stolen from Wres­tle-Ma­nia. That’s not sur­pris­ing, since the pres­i­dent sits in the WWE Hall of Fame.

With Trump we have learned that sophistry does not win you points. Or an elec­tion. Why be like Frank Un­der­wood, del­i­cately tap danc­ing through con­gress when the blunt in­stru­ment of an ex­ec­u­tive or­der is far more to the point?

With the fic­tional Pres­i­dent Un­der­wood, the devil is in the de­tails. And he’ll tell you so him­self, as the new sea­son re­turns to break­ing the fifth wall. Un­der­wood plays to the cam­era, glee­fully re­lay­ing the mis­chief he’s up to. You only wish he had a han­dle­bar mous­tache to twirl when he’s do­ing it.

Trump doesn’t care about the fine print, and so far, de­spite stum­bling past his first 100 days, he’s still gamely hang­ing on, a wounded, an­gry crea­ture.

Un­der­wood’s south­ern charm is be­nign by com­par­i­son.

Like HBO’s com­edy Veep, about a nar­cis­sis­tic, over-the-top politi­cian cling­ing to power played by Ju­lia Louis-Drey­fus, House of Cards has been usurped by re­al­ity. It’s hard to sat­i­rize a pres­i­dent who is sat­i­riz­ing him­self.

Still, House of Cards has of­ten veered into ex­cess, shar­ing more DNA with Veep than All The Pres­i­dent’s Me­nas it ca­reened from drama to black par­ody.

That seemed ev­i­dent last sea­son when the pres­i­dent de­cided to put his wife on the ticket as the vi­cepres­i­dent.

That sort of nepo­tism would be laugh­able — and ar­guably, it de­tract- ed from the re­al­ism of the show.

But then Trump put his daugh­ter Ivanka in the White House and let his son-in-law Jared Kush­ner han­dle for­eign af­fairs, all the while con­tin­u­ing to bla­tantly profit in his busi­ness from po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions while a spe­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tor de­cides whether his staff was col­lud­ing with Rus­sians. So sorry House of Cards, you just can’t make this stuff up. Not that Sea­son 5 doesn’t try. There are many par­al­lels to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion from the start.

The Un­der­woods are thrust into a tough elec­tion fight. So they cook up a bo­gey­man ter­ror­ist to get votes. They blame the me­dia. They have a com­bat­ive press sec­re­tary who be­rates re­porters. There are com­par­isons to Nixon. And, of course, they shut borders.

“I want the world to know that if they want to come to our coun­try for hos­pi­tals, for our col­leges and golf cour­ses, they’re go­ing to have to de­liver more than my head on a burn­ing stick,” says a de­fi­ant Un­der­wood.

But try­ing to out-trump Trump is a los­ing game. CNN to­day is vastly more en­ter­tain­ing than any­thing that scripted tele­vi­sion can de­liver.

A tweet from Trump can charge a news cy­cle for days and make a Hol­ly­wood screen­writer wish they had that kind of imag­i­na­tion — or balls.

This year also has a cru­cial change. Cre­ator Beau Wil­limon has left, leav­ing vet­eran writ­ers Melissa James Gib­son and Frank Pugliese to take over as showrun­ners.

The duo have dou­bled down on the dark tone of the orig­i­nal first two sea­sons. And it mostly works, even af­ter in­ject­ing a lu­di­crously heavy dose of car­nage in the fi­nale.

It smacks a lit­tle of des­per­a­tion. Be­cause heaven knows, with Trump in of­fice, what they can pos­si­bly come up with for sea­son six.


The fifth sea­son of House of Cards suf­fers from the ob­vi­ous com­par­i­son to cur­rent events in the U.S.

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