Fifty shades of greige: the crumbling House of Cards shows the perils of repeat commissions

Season three of House of Cards reaps diminishing returns.

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House of Cards
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Spoiler alert: if you haven’t yet seen season three of House of Cards in its entirety, be warned. I have and you should turn away now if you wish to avoid knowing that the series is . . . not very good. How bad are we talking? Very. All I can tell you is that during my mammoth binge, I frequently found myself opening other tabs on my laptop so I could window-shop the exquisite turtlenecks and twinsets modelled to such good effect by Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) in the White House kitchen.

House of Cards used to be a tightly written series, as minimalist as the first lady’s frocks. Every moment was unmissable. Now, it has come over all maximalist, padded out with prolix, unnecessary and often wildly implausible scenes – President Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in full combat gear in a bunker in the Jordan Valley? The first lady asleep in a Russian prison cell? – that do little or nothing to further the plot. To continue the wardrobe analogy, the writers seem to have ditched Roland Mouret in favour of a load of old elasticated trousers and waterfall cardigans from Marks & Spencer.

If I had to locate the cause of the excess, bad taste and general disorientation, I would home in on the Oval Office. What to do with Frank Underwood now that he is president? What, in particular, to do with his ambition? Jeopardy is a problem here. The leader of the free world is too easily able to fix any little local difficulties. When, for instance, Claire’s nomination to be the ambassador to the UN – yes, her ambitions are on the rise, which may be where this series is ultimately headed – was vetoed by the Senate, he simply appointed
her himself.

The show’s writers seem also to be a touch in awe of their anti-hero’s new status – a typically American response to high office that has brought on an obsession in their scripts with such things as process, precedent and legacy. Oh, what a lot of meetings there are! Sometimes, we are even treated to some vaguely FDR-inspired talk of policies. Macbeth keeps shading into The West Wing, for all that Frank still makes his knowing asides to camera.

Conscience? He is not in possession of such a thing. Those who animate him, however, seemingly are. And while they know enough to grasp that they would look stupid indeed were they to have this president showing any scruples, they have chickened out when it comes to his wife, whose moral compass, in season three, starts functioning so well that she is moved to denounce President Petrov of Russia (Lars Mikkelsen, furiously channelling Putin) at a press conference for his attitudes to homosexuality – and to hell with world peace. Soon after this, she dyes her hair dark brown and it makes her look vaguely as if she is wearing the sort of cap that judges would place on their heads as they condemned a man to hang. At which point, the eager viewer scents remorse; perhaps she will now renew her contract with her venal, barbarous husband. But then she flinches at Frank’s touch and you know the game is up. She is human, after all.

Splitting the atom that is Frank and Claire is a grave mistake, for the success of House of Cards rests entirely on their warped shoulders. Their sexual ambiguity, their wordless understanding, their elective childlessness – these are not things you find often in American television. Spacey’s meaty bulk, Wright’s alabaster stillness: when they’re together, it’s mesmerising. When they’re apart, you’re seconds away from the wormhole that is theoutnet.com.

Will Frank secure the Democratic nomination for 2016? And if he does, will he win the election? (Season three ends the day after the Iowa caucus.) No one will give a damn either way if his wife is not at his side; there are, after all, only so many greige interiors a person can take (every single room in House of Cards looks like Pottery Barn at sale time). Unless she ends up running against him, which looks like precisely the dead end into which this TV juggernaut is heading at speed.

Season three of House of Cards illustrates all too well the law of diminishing returns in television, the essence of which is that the commissioning process works against long-term success (only when a series is a hit is it recommissioned, by which time its desperate writers have often already thrown all their best material at it) – though not half so well as the second series of Broadchurch, which turned out to be a pretty nasty combination of the unpleasant and the unbelievable. (And yet, amazingly, it has been recommissioned.) Relief all round, then, that the wondrous Wolf Hall cannot return, at least not until Hilary Mantel completes her trilogy. Has ever a series been so enthralling? The way Anne Boleyn turned her head just before the sword took it clean off: in that moment, Peter Kosminsky secured his reputation as the finest television director of our age.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?