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Why House of Cards Is Unsatisfying

I took a couple of weeks to "binge" my way through House of Cards season one. The show is well produced and mostly engaging. But it is, in my view, ultimately remarkable only in how unsatisfying it turns out to be. And I believe there are important lessons in storytelling as we uncover the lurking lackadaisical nature of the tale.

1. Revenge is only satisfying if we see it unfold. Think of The Princess Bride. What if instead of fighting the six-fingered man, Inigo Montoya discovered that the man who had killed his father had died after a long and painful bout with cancer? Lame. That may have been more terrible than a relatively quick death at the hands of a master swordsman. But cancer doesn't have the sense of retribution that we want in a story. We want to see evil suffer, but we don't want to feel sorry for the perpetrators of extreme evil. In House of Cards, we don't get the sense that our antagonistic protagonist is actually dishing out retribution. He's merely slashing and burning his way to his objective, hurting everyone except the people who betrayed him first. And if he ends up ruining the lives of those who lied to him, it comes more as a surprise than a plot. We don't see revenge. We only see a politician throwing a tantrum like a spoiled 4-year-old and if his objectives are reached, we feel it's because of the failures of others not his successes.

2. We don't care about the lead. There is absolutely no reason to care about any of the main characters in Cards. Our "hero" is a selfish, despicable man who is willing to stop at nothing to get to his petty and meaningless goals. Why does he want that political position again? He's already well connected and can do pretty much whatever he wants. Why does he feel so cheated? What are all the "things" he hopes to accomplish once in more power? He has no true direction and no need that compels him there. So, while we can empathize with not getting what was promised, I can't bring myself to care if he were to fail. Which makes the long episodes that show him struggling to reach his goal hallow and unsatisfying. I want to see him mete judgment, not whine at me about how he doesn't like what's happening around him.

3. Everything is meaningless. And I'm not just talking in the existential way. This show underscores again and again how everything in their world matters not one iota. Okay, there are a few scenes where one sympathetic character feels sad about her significant other being knocked off, but that's it. Nothing else in the plot has any real impact on anyone. A few people destroy their lives, but that's not actually part of the narrative, its just who they are. Worse, when we get down to the existential problems near the end of the season, we discover that "praying to myself, for myself" is not only laughable and lame, it's downright pathetic. And the question is asked, but then ignored, "Why are we doing this?" ...because, really, everything is meaningless.

4. The characters aren't pawns on a chessboard, they are filler or convenience. The wife and her world? Pointless to the main plot, there merely to create possible tension. The reporter? The epitome of poor eye candy and dues ex machina. Even the three characters I liked... don't do much for the plot. And perhaps that's because there was so little true plot.

 ~Luke Holzmann
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