A flimsy House of Cards, and the question of quality TV

Distinguishing the signifiers of great TV from actually great TV


Patrick Harbron/Netflix/Everett Collection

House of Cards has everything it takes to be a quality show. It has a middle-aged male anti-hero (Kevin Spacey). It takes on a serious subject, U.S. politics, in a cynical manner. And it’s shot like a feature film, in the style of David Fincher, who produces the show and directed the pilot. Yet the Netflix series, whose second season premieres on Feb. 14, hasn’t made it into the pantheon of can’t-miss dramas like Mad Men or Breaking Bad. Call it a new kind of show for an era where TV is taken seriously: a show with all the signifiers of great TV that isn’t really great.

“I think House Of Cards is a ‘quality’ show that’s lacking,” says Todd VanDerWerff, TV editor of The Onion’s AV Club. “I liked individual performances or elements, but it has no real point beyond telling us, over and over, that politics is corrupt, and aren’t we smart for being cynical about the whole business.” This kind of reaction was common enough that the first season of the show received mixed reviews and managed only one major Emmy award, for Fincher. And in contrast to Mad Men’s huge cultural impact, House of Cards hasn’t caught on except in Washington, where President Barack Obama enjoys how “ruthlessly efficient” Spacey’s anti-heroic Congressman is in getting things done.

At least House of Cards has some admirers; more often, would-be quality dramas don’t even get that much. AMC, the network of Breaking Bad, tried to debut other shows in a similar style with mixed success; Low Winter Sun, a cynical crime drama in the style of The Wire, got dismal reviews and folded after one season. Another network, Starz, run by former HBO boss Chris Albrecht, rolled out one failed “quality” drama after another, from the cynical political show Boss (starring Kelsey Grammer as a corrupt mayor) to the cynical period drama Magic City (starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a corrupt hotel owner).

It may be that the rules for making a quality drama, as laid down by The Sopranos in 1999, have become over-familiar. Jason Mittell, professor of American studies and film and media culture at Middlebury College and author of the book Complex TV, calls it an “example of the phrase that some TV scholars have used: ‘innovation/imitation/saturation,’ ” where a revolutionary style gets co-opted and becomes dull.

Everyone has a favourite example of the low-quality quality drama. Christopher Bird, who writes a TV column for Torontoist, points to House of Lies, a cynical Showtime drama about amoral consultants: “It wastes the actors, the style is grating and the writing is just bland.” VanDerWerff picks Ray Donovan, a cynical Showtime drama about an amoral consultant, “simply because it’s so well-worn at this point. The show seemed to spend roughly half its first season having characters talk about how awesome Ray was, so that the audience would always be aware we were supposed to think he was cool.” And Canadian TV journalist Diane Wild says she finds it annoying when Downton Abbey is considered great TV: “It became impossible to ignore that this is kitsch dressed in Edwardian finery.” These shows present themselves as hard-hitting antidotes to the status quo, but with their similarly dark perspectives and soapy plots, they may be just as much a part of typical TV as any bland crime procedural.

Still, Mittell says, just because there’s been a glut of this kind of drama doesn’t invalidate truly great shows in the subgenre, like Masters of Sex, an anti-hero drama about sex researchers Masters and Johnson that recalls Mad Men but found its own distinctive style. “Being imitative should not be an automatic knock against a program—pretty much every great TV show builds off predecessors.” And sometimes a show can start off disappointingly and turn itself around. Boardwalk Empire, a cynical crime drama, originally didn’t quite live up to HBO’s hype, but has grown in esteem over the years; Bird says “it’s so atypical in how it approaches the anti-hero drama that it has become brilliant.” The question for the second season of House of Cards may be whether it too can find its own distinctive take on the anti-hero style. That may be the only way to make the jump from a “quality” show to just a quality show.


A flimsy House of Cards, and the question of quality TV

  1. What has happened to the concept of good wholesome shows that include a bit of decent comedy, mixed in with life lessons learned, family values, people having fun and actually accomplishing something worthwhile, rather than: courtroom dramas, police car chases, sexual innuendo, hospital dramas, etc.?
    I guess the days of thoughtful programming like Leave It To Beaver and Andy Griffith are long gone. Seems a shame. Watching those old shows gives a person time to reflect and think about a time that was less hurried and people (even strangers) would actually strike up a conversation in passing, unlike today where most seem to be self involved with their e-devices and tend to ignore “life” that is going on around them.
    That’s my 2 cents. < Geez, even the penny is gone now!

    • I think you’re right about digital distraction – we’re all floating around in our own bubbles these days. But ‘wholesome’ TV is, let’s be honest, boring. Why should TV preach family values, or any dogma for that matter? Great television should be challenging. It should make you question the world around you. Go and watch series 4 of the Wire and tell me you don’t feel anger at the injustice of the world.

      • UGM …
        That’s just the thing though, I don’t really want to feel angry at the world. I do watch a wide variety of programs when time allows, everything from comedies, some sports, wildlife and nature shows, news, the odd movie, talent competitions, etc. A couple of the few drama series that I have tuned into recently are: The Blacklist, also Crossing Lines, and although I appreciate the plots, acting and such about them, I do sometimes tire of the violence/ gore and heavy feel of it all.
        Other people talk about shows I have had no interest in checking out, like the one about the zombies (not for me) or all that vampire stuff. Anyway, that’s just my take on “modern” viewing options, silly as they may sound to others. Everyone has their own preferences, eh?

        • In addition to my previous post here, a couple of other shows that people I know told me they watch are Downton Abbey and Game Of Thrones .. I have never seen either. Does anyone else here like these ones and if so, what draws you to them?

          • Can’t say I care for Downton, (for the reasons listed in the article), but Game of Thrones is a great romp. Either you will be convinced by the end of the first episode… or not.

    • You mean some nickel and dime “my dysfunctional family” budget show?

      Me, I want hard core science fiction. I want real scientific method science, critical and fair documentaries, and less Susuki fruit fly junk science of eco-politics for money.

      But hey, CRTC manages us so well, to get anything meaningful on TV you have to subsidize the rest of the junk channels. But instead of having CRTC manage your life, use NetFlix USA, they have a lot of the old programs, Lassie, Leave It To Beaver, Andy Griffith, Petticoat Junction and even Bonanza with Lorne Greene shoit when he lived in USA.

    • Totes. I mean Growing Pains was cancelled in like 1958.

      (Shout out to Leave it to Beaver, though, which was actually quite thoughtful and well done. I think Weinman has some good writing on it somewhere, something about the Cleaver’s trying to find their way in the new middle class).

      • Wasn’t Growing Pains from around the 80’s/ 90’s? I recall seeing it a couple of times when someone had the tv on that channel when I’d come in to sit down for a bit, didn’t follow it regularly though.

    • Ah yes, the good old days of Andy Griffith, when Otis Campbell could get drunk and disorderly every day without causing any consequences for anyone – what did that teach us about “life lessons” or “family values?”

  2. Enjoy your programing, they program us well.

  3. I watch House of Cards but it grates. It’s not a hardboiled drama where an amoral politician’s genius schemes propel him to the top, it’s a show where a whole bunch of unrealistic schemes seem to break in favour of the main character for no earthly reason.

    • Agreed, like Dexter before it, there are only so many “the whole plan is unraveling!” moments a series should have before… well the plan becomes irreparably unraveled!
      I really enjoyed House of Cards up until the death of a main character… after that I got the feeling I was watching pure farce…

  4. The BBC mini series House of Cards (1990) was a far superior political drama than its newer namesake. If you enjoy Brit tv and this genre, it’s worth every minute if you can find it – probably on youtube.

    Downton Abbey (or as everyone I know calls it “Down Town Abbey” ) lost it appeal
    for me after a couple of episodes. Way too melodramatic and soapy.

    I do think there is a too much gritty programming on tv today which is labelled as great viewing. Everything is getting darker, more graphic and overall, plain depressing. All very stylistic and expensive looking but without any creative and thought provoking story-telling.

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