Kevin Spacey returns in Netflix’s “House of Cards” on May 30. (David Giesbrecht / Netflix/TNS)
For the first time in his five-year mad dash to the highest office in the land, “House of Cards’” morally corrupt president Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) has been blindsided by someone he never saw coming — Donald Trump.
As the fifth season of the stalwart series lands on Netflix, it does so at a time when gawking at the power moves and backstabbing of the presidency has lost its guilty pleasure shine.
In his early days, first as the Majority Whip before manipulating his way to the White House, Frank’s puppetry of the government and the people who run it was fascinating because it felt familiar up against the recognizable image of Washington, D.C., while still injecting the stale nature of politics with juicy drama.
But with the nation now tuned into the real president’s every move, many of which are in stark contrast to normal operating procedure, the Underwoods’ thirst for power at any means no longer feel that removed from reality.
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The legacy of Linc’s Tackle (5:05)
In season five, which was admittedly written and shot well before Trump was elected, Frank and his wife/partner in crime/vice presidential running mate, Claire (Robin Wright), are clinging to the White House by a thread as a Republican war hero candidate proves to be a formidable challenger.
Last season, “House of Cards” got a jolt of narrative excitement with its election storyline, marking Frank’s first time actually vying to be elected president, having taken the post after helping push his predecessor out of office. It was a new playing field for the Underwoods to stare down and position the game pieces to their advantage. But that was last year, before America broke at the seams of a real election.
Unfortunately for “House of Cards,” it chose to carry its election through most of the new season — its first without creator Beau Willimon — requiring its audience to wade through yet another exhausting and wholly convoluted contest for the presidency. Raise a hand if that’s what you’re craving from television right now?
Now, should the unfortunately timed narrative path discredit the work of Spacey or Wright? Absolutely not. The pair remain an electric, dynamic and unpredictable team, who, for the first time, are faced with a growing divide between them and a noticeable division in their self interests. Wright, in particular, continues to mine more and more from his steely alter ego, who’s beginning to double down on her own agenda as she ascends the ladder alongside her husband. Plus, name someone else who rocks a power blazer as well as she does?
But even with their reliable lead performances and a solid supporting cast — namely Michael Kelly and Neve Campbell as the Underwoods’ closest allies in deception — “House of Cards” is pinned down by the burden of reality.
When an angry public pickets the White House, it mirrors events frequently seen on the news. The sometimes cringeworthy shots of real-life political pundits like Van Jones and Gloria Borger reading scripts about the faux election is far too familiar. Frank’s boasting of political wins and the Underwoods on the campaign no longer holds the tension it did a year ago. Heck, the mere mention of the Electoral College is bound to trigger PTSD for some.
“House of Cards” will always be Netflix’s first original series, but it no longer exists in a vacuum, popping up once a year for viewers to binge over a weekend and get their political thrills before moving on.
In the new political landscape that is America’s reality, “House of Cards’” role has shifted and it’s unclear where it stands. Once seen as escapist political fun, what the show now offers its viewers may just make them want to escape.