House of Cards has taken the story of a power struggle, a story as old as humans started organising themselves into tribes, and made it into the first thoroughly modern television show.
Frank Underwood, the doe-eyed, ruthless, power-starved Southerner, is Bill Clinton with the ambition of Julius Caesar. He’s charming, and cunning, but above all infinitely entertaining. If Underwood were running around Washington, the country would be aghast at the atrocities that he has committed, but his actions seen through the lens of Kevin Spacey’s masterful performance are not as appalling as they are exhilarating. He’s as exciting a character as human history has created, but what sets Underwood apart from his fellow anti-heroes Walter White and Don Draper, is the complex layers that lie beneath his glossy Southern veneer.
Underwood is a bi-sexual who not only engaged in a gay relationship while in college, but also entertained a second gentleman, the delightfully subtle Meechum, in a threesome with his wife, Claire. He embodies the rationality and toughness of manhood, while still engaging in sexual behaviour that we have historically demonised as feminine and weak. He has redefined what it means to be an alpha-male. In our modern television, the bi-sexual man is no longer the best friend offering fashion advice, he is bending the plot to his will.
Frank has an open relationship with his wife, Claire, the sexually-liberated, decisive, and capable counterpart to Frank. But, Claire is flawed. She makes blunders, hurts other’s feelings, and crushes inferiors with the sheer force of her will. In this way, Claire is unlike the female protagonists of the past who were empowered and capable, but rarely shown in a negative light. They could kick ass and take names, but did not get dirty. Claire dives right into the mud.
In addition to Claire, we have other strong female leads in Jacqueline Sharp, Zoe Barnes, and Linda Vazquez who engage in political backstabbing and opportunistic affairs. In House of Cards, women are not the helpless victims of the distant past, nor the spotless female heroes of the recent past, but the gritty bitches of the here and now, who know what they want and will crush those who stand in their way. If the Bechedal Test were administered in the form of a final, House of Cards would have strolled in fifteen minutes late, aced it, and mooned all the other shows trying to pass.
Not content with merely redefining the way we think about our lead male and female characters, House of Cards has juicy complex roles all the way down the line that reject stereotypes. Doug Stamper is a recovering alcoholic that is not left helpless and dejected because of his past addiction, but motivated. Rachael Posner is a former prostitute without the intolerable “heart of gold.” President Walker is not only the best Obama impression on television, but also has marital problems and takes prescription drugs to deal with depression. Freddy is not the docile, doting, black servant of Underwood, but a proud man of action who makes his own way.
Furthermore, Frank’s breaking of the fourth wall is an innovative take on the mockumentary format most popular in The Office-esque comedies. In House of Cards, Frank uses the camera as his bully pulpit, swaying us over to his side and letting us partake in the joy he experiences from his manipulations. He shares lessons, observations, and inside jokes, just to let the viewer know how far ahead he is of everyone else in this game of chess.
But, perhaps the most complete rejection of stereotypical television comes in the sex of House of Cards. Sex takes every incarnation: extramarital, threesome, gay, lesbian, interracial, prostitution, and open-marriage, except for one, marital sex. Frank and Claire’s sex is never shown because husbands and wives having sex is boring, and House of Cards has no patience for things that are boring.
Perhaps some aspects of the show have been glimpsed before, but never have all these aspects combined into one phenomenal product, and never has this product been available for consumption at any time. House of Cards, in addition to being cutting edge content-wise, is miles ahead of the pack delivery-wise.
The future of television does not lie in weekly instalments on ABC, CBS, and FOX - it is online.
Television is now a buyers market, and if viewers are forced to wait a week to see a new episode, they are going to find something else. The massive reservoir of entertainment at our fingertips has removed the responsibility of the viewer to carve out time for a show, and forced shows to grip us by the throat and convince us they are worth our time. House of Cards delivers fresh episodes better than anything on network television on our schedules. We want the option to binge watch or savour. We want to watch not just on our televisions, but on our laptops, tablets, and phones. We want to watch new episodes, morning, afternoon and night. We do not want to follow shows, we want our shows to follow us.
When we look back years from now, long after network television has been dethroned by a myriad of Netflix-esque companies, we will appreciate the show that was the first to give us what we wanted, when we wanted it.
If you like House of Cards, you’re going to love the future.