Be careful what you wish for. That old axiom is at play early on in Season 3 of “House of Cards.”
Fans who binge-watched the first two rounds of Netflix’s political thriller know by now that dastardly Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), with the aid of wife Claire (Robin Wright), connived and back-stabbed his way from Congress to the vice presidency to the Oval Office.
Game over? Not quite. Especially now that the dream job has become a nightmare.
As the still-gripping drama returns Friday, Frank’s approval ratings are in the toilet. Unemployment has soared to scary heights ,and a Republican-controlled Congress is thwarting him at every turn. Even leaders in his own party regard him as toxic. So much for enjoying the spoils of victory.
“House of Cards” has always been at its most fun when ruthless Frank and his gorgeous partner-in-slime have to extricate themselves from trouble while outwitting and outplaying their foes. But the problem, especially in a highly uneven Season 2, was that the obstacles weren’t daunting enough, and the game got too easy. If Washington, D.C., is the raging snake pit “House of Cards” cynically portrays it as, Frank was a boa constrictor among a bunch of puny garters.
That’s why the overwhelming pressure being felt by the president and first lady – at least in the six episodes Netflix made available for review – brings a much-needed new dynamic to the show. Frank still doesn’t have one formidable adversary going toe-to-toe with him, unless you count the thuggish Russian president played by Lars Mikkelsen. Instead, he’s being besieged on nearly every front by various rivals who smell blood, and that’s a change for the better.
It’s compelling, after all, to see Frank display levels of desperation and vulnerability we haven’t witnessed before. The arrogant man who routinely turns to the camera to brag about how he is one or two steps ahead of everybody else is now way off balance, alternately lashing out at Cabinet members and slipping into bouts of dark despair.
Of course, he still has Claire to lean on, and an intriguing scene in Episode 2 reinforces just how vital a role she plays in helping the prez retain his mojo. On the other hand, this season Claire has her own power-grabbing ambitions in mind, and it’s interesting to see how her self-interests occasionally thrust her into conflict with her husband.
There are other story lines to explore, including a resolution to Season 2’s juicy cliffhanger, but we won’t spoil any of that here. Nor will we reveal the risky – if rather obvious – scheme that Frank orchestrates in a bid to keep from being a “placeholder president.” What we can say is that “House of Cards” remains a slick and suspenseful – if not exactly layered and nuanced – saga that sucks you in from the start.
Then again, how much does it have left in the tank? Last season, “House of Cards” occasionally became an eye-rolling experience as it recklessly veered into “Scandal”-like silliness. It wasn’t a good look for a show that likes to see itself as an award-worthy “prestige” drama.
And now that the stakes are being raised even higher, you have to wonder if things are about to get too crazy again – and whether “House of Cards” should seriously consider not seeking a fourth term.
TOUGH ON CRIME: The parade of midseason shows continues Sunday with the debut of two very different crime dramas in “Secrets and Lies” (9 p.m., ABC) and “Battle Creek” (10 p.m., CBS).
In “Secrets and Lies,” Ryan Phillippe plays a suburban father who discovers the body of his neighbor’s son in the woods while out for a run. He’s horrified, of course, but eventually he becomes a suspect in the boy’s murder – a situation that puts more tension on his already rocky marriage and makes him a pariah in his town.
Sunday’s two-hour opener contains its share of intrigue and soapy twists but suffers from flat writing and strident performances. Juliette Lewis, who plays the lead detective with all the charisma of a fence post, seems particularly out of place. Also, haven’t we had our fill of dark dramas tied to dead children?
If you’re seeking lighter fare, turn to the thoroughly enjoyable “Battle Creek.” It features Josh Duhamel and Dean Winters as mismatched law enforcement officers who struggle to establish a working relationship while trying to clean up the hardscrabble streets of their Michigan city.
While the premise sounds overly familiar, the lead duo, along with a cast that includes Kal Penn and Janet McTeer, brings some offbeat energy and hilarity to the proceedings. And you have to love any show that whips up an episode (in week 2) called “Syruptitious” – about a threat posed by a maple syrup cartel.
Contact Chuck Barney at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter.com/chuckbarney and Facebook.com/bayareanewsgroup.chuckbarney.
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