How will Netflix's House of Cards overcome challenges for season 5?
The main showrunner has departed and Trump is President...
After much anticipation, the latest season of House of Cards arrives on Netflix on Tuesday, but the political drama is facing some huge challenges — namely the departure of its main showrunner, and the election of controversial real-life President Donald Trump
When Donald Trump was elected US President last November against all expectations, satirists were suddenly plunged into an existential crisis and left confronting some depressing questions.
Did they still have jobs? Were they even relevant anymore? How was it possible to satirise a warped, post-truth, alternative-fact reality that was so far beyond satire, it already had the hallmarks of satirical fiction. As it turned out, they need not have worried.
Since Trump took office on January 20, his administration has hurtled like an out of control train from one disaster to another, sometimes on a weekly basis, increasingly on a daily one, providing satirists with a rich vein of material.
Laying aside the alleged Russian connection, this week alone brought us Trump’s tense and awkward meeting with Pope Francis, at which the Pontiff — who had already rubbed the 54th president up the wrong way (not difficult) — appeared to mock his weight.
Next came Trump’s cringe-inducing public utterances of condolence after the Manchester bombing, which recalled a shell-shocked George W Bush’s initial description of the 9/11 terrorists as “folks”. While most world leaders found the right words to say, Trump, once again employing the limited language of a nine-year-old in the playground, condemned the atrocity by calling the perpetrators “evil losers”.
Football folk are not generally known for their eloquence, yet even the Manchester United players, dedicating their Europa League victory on Wednesday to the victims and their families, made a better fist of it than the US President.
And then came the revelation that someone in the Trump administration leaked intelligence details about the bombing to the US media, jeopardising the investigation into the atrocity and leaving British Prime Minister Theresa May extremely angry.
Satire has never been gifted more material to work with by a sitting president; it’s never been in a healthier state. The flabby Saturday Night Live has been rejuvenated. Political impressionists, buoyed by SNL’s Alec Baldwin as Trump and Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer, have been given a new lease of life.
Late-night hosts like Stephen Colbert and John Oliver are practically having their scripts written for them by the White House. After a slightly rocky start, Trevor Noah, successor to the much-loved Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show, couldn’t have asked for a better bedding-in season.
But while the chaotic Trump experiment has been a boon for satire and talk-show hosts, it has the potential to cause real difficulties for the fifth season of House of Cards, which arrives on Netflix next Tuesday.
House of Cards, which was Netflix’s very first foray into producing its own series, is a hugely significant show for both the streaming service and television in general. Its slick, seductive, addictive blend of pitch-black comedy and political intrigue, which comes with the veneer of authenticity that only American-made, Washington-based dramas like The West Wing, the first season of Homeland and, from a much earlier vintage, the Watergate-influenced miniseries Washington: Behind Closed Doors, can pull off convincingly, marked Netflix out as arguably the most important and influential TV broadcaster this century.
The practice of making every episode of a season available immediately— something that had never been done before but is now routine — transformed viewing habits overnight and spawned the binge-watch culture.
The series also proved beyond doubt that copies don’t always have to be inferior; they don’t always have to be misfires like the US versions of Cracker, Prime Suspect or The Killing. Sometimes, they can be better than the originals.
House of Cards is based on the BBC series of the same name and its sequel, To Play the King, which were themselves adopted from novels by Michael Dobbs. In terms of scope and ambition, it had already moved far beyond the source material by the end of the second season. It helps, of course, that it could command the kind of big-league budget and attract the kind of stellar talent, primarily Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, that a BBC series of the 1990s could only have fantasised about.
And yet, there’s an argument that House of Cards has moved too far away from its roots. Seasons one through two, charting the rise of manipulative and eventually murderous politician Frank Underwood (Francis Urquhart in the BBC original) from VP to President, were riveting and superbly entertaining.
Okay, so perhaps deep down we thought it was stretching credibility to have a man in Underwood’s lofty position getting away with pushing his journalist lover under a subway train, or killing another troublesome character by leaving him passed out in a closed garage with the car running, all in the space of the first season.
But Spacey was such great, hissable fun in the role, the writing so clever and confident, and the performances so good that you couldn’t but suspend your disbelief and go along for the ride. Something went a little awry in season three, however, which received the lowest critical rating of the series so far. It seemed to be treading water and repeating itself.
The strain showed even more in season four, which suffered from increasingly melodramatic plot swerves. It wasn’t Frank surviving an assassination attempt and then requiring a liver transplant that irked some; it was his wife Claire demanding she be his running mate that was considered a step too far.
A critic in the Radio Times magazine wrote that “there are limits to the stupidity viewers are willing to accept” and that this particular turn of events “stepped over the line”. Whatever you feel about that view, season five of House of Cards is facing a couple of enormous challenges.
For a start, there’s the departure, announced before season four was even shown, of showrunner Beau Willimon, the man who came up with the idea of adapting the BBC series in the first place. He’s gone off to focus on writing a play.
History shows that successful series tend to suffer when they lose the visionary behind them. The West Wing went into decline after the departure of Aaron Sorkin. Fans of Gilmore Girls (and I wouldn’t be one) agree that the final season of the original series, made without creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, was a let-down.
Sherman-Palladino’s own disenchantment with it was the reason for last year’s Netflix revival, which she considers the “proper” ending to the story that she’d envisioned all along (although there were suggestions this week that it could be coming back for another run).
Then there’s the question of just how House of Cards will fit into America’s current political climate. With the comforting (at least for non-Republicans) presence of Barak Obama in the White House, a blackly comic fantasy about a Machiavellian crook and murderer becoming President was a delicious indulgence America could afford. The timing of House of Cards was perfect.
But it’s returning at a time when the landscape has changed beyond belief in mere months. The highest office in the land is now occupied by a man so patently, painfully incompetent and unsuited to hold it that he makes Richard Nixon look like Abraham Lincoln.
Nixon may ultimately have degenerated into a paranoid crook and liar, but at least he clocked up major achievements during his presidency, in areas including civil rights and equality, healthcare, the environment and, of course, foreign policy, where he opened a dialogue with China and the Soviet Union — a very different sort of dialogue the Trump administration is accused of having with modern Russia.
The dark fantasy has become the dark reality, the far-fetched has become the worryingly possible. The scripts for the new season of House of Cards were written long before Trump took office, so Spacey and everyone else involved has been taking pains to point out that the series won’t be reflecting the current administration — although the star has also hinted at storylines even more outlandish than anything unfolding in what passes for the real world right now.
The trailer suggests that the increasingly power-crazy Frank sees the future of the USA not as a democracy, but as a demagoguery or even a dictatorship, with him at the helm. It remains to be seen whether viewers, particularly in America, have the appetite for a plot like that at the moment.