John Y. Brown, III: Why I Was Disappointed by Episode 1 of House of Cards

After reading my RP colleagues, Jonathan Miller (Why I Hated Episode 1) and Jeff Smith (Why I Enjoyed Episode 1) reviews on House of Cards first episode of season two, I couldn’t resist saying “Deal me in, too”

For starters, I am a fan. And after season one, a devoted and complete fan.

I love the series’ metaphoric title almost as much as the brazenly brilliant first season. Our government’s structure, the series seems to be saying, is at once both as fragile as a figurative “house of cards” while also being carefully upheld by unnerving stratagems on par with a figurative card game of brutal skill and exacting chance.

But if Season 2 had a subtitle, it might be “Still Not Collapsed—Yet.” Of course, my opinion is only based on one episode and may change. I hope it does. And to keep disappointment minimized to the reader of this post, I will not include any spoiler revelations beyond letdown.

I can’t recall if I first heard of the “Most Improved Player Award” being offered in Major League Baseball or in the NBA. But I do recall thinking it is a worthy recognition to bestow on the deserving recipient who progresses the most from the season before. And that noteworthy distinction is true in every field of endeavor.

Awarding the opposite credential (we’ll call it “Most Diminished Player of the Year”), for falling the farthest from the prior year’s loftier perch, would seem mean-spirited and unhelpful. But if such an award existed in the the intensely competitive industry of television, House of Cards, season two, seems to be a strong favorite to win based on the second season’s initial episode.

jyb_musingsWhy do I say this? The first episode of season two reminds me of so many original breakthrough series that start off taking our breath away but eventually cashing in by lazily falling back on easy formulaic routines. It may be season two or three or four before there is an episode when we realize the series is trying to recreate surprise and unique drama more by clever camera angles and pounding background music than by a refreshingly original story line that seems to be writing itself.

Sometimes the series recovers after a single episode lapse. But the lapse is usually a sign of creative fatigue. Or at least lassitude. And signals we should start to lower our expectations of what’s to come.

Tonight at dinner a song came on in the restaurant and my daughter said, “I am so sick of this song. This band started off so great and now all their songs sound alike.” Without knowing the band, I offered, “Yeah, I suspect the band either got lazy or played it safe instead of staying true to themselves.” I got the same feeling later tonight as I watched the opening show of season two House of Cards.

The cover for season one had no tag line. Just the protagonist, Kevin Spacey, sitting cockily and inexplicably in place of President Lincoln in a faux Lincoln Memorial. How could you not wonder what it was about? Season two has the protagonist sitting with a confused but plotting look on his face with his wife’s back to him and has the tagline, “There are two kinds of pain.” How could you not assume that one of them is disappointment?

Does it mean the series isn’t worth watching in season two? Not at all. Especially if a series was as spectacularly well-written and crafted a show previously as was House of Cards first season. The series first episode is still catchy and clever. But not much else. I’m still going to watch all of season two. But not because episode one of season two laid out such a suspenseful and promising narrative. But rather because season one was so good I have to believe their will be some inspired nuggets to be found in season two, even if it ends up as the most diminished series of the year.


Follow up: After watching episodes 2, 3 and 4, I have become a re-convert to House of Cards. Not a series grounded in the realm of the possible  But one grounded in brilliant dramatic writing and suspenseful theater. And that’s good enough for me.


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