A New Game of “House of Cards”

Netflix’s dark-hearted political drama is back – just in time for Valentine’s Day.

The folks at Netflix are showing a delightfully twisted sense of humor by debuting the second season of the dark-hearted political drama "House of Cards" on Valentine’s Day. But in at least one respect, the timing makes sense: The show centers on a couple inextricably bound, if not by love for one another, then by a shared lust for power ­– and revenge.

In Season 1, Kevin Spacey’s Democratic House Whip Frank Underwood, furious at being denied a promised post as secretary of state, unleashed a domestic torrent of schemes within schemes to get back at the president and seize an even greater position. As Underwood’s intricate power plays grow both bolder and more precarious with Season 2, "House of Cards" is poised to further rise as a powerhouse of drama.

Netflix didn’t just help reinvent entertainment by producing original programs like "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black." The streaming service’s efforts mark another step in recreating television-style drama with shows that slowly unfold, defying traditional characters arcs. It’s a journey that began on cable with "The Sopranos," and extends to "Mad Men," "Boardwalk Empire" and "Masters of Sex," among others.

"House of Cards" also taps into the apparent popular craving for political intrigue also playing out via more traditional outlets, as evidence by CBS’ "The Good Wife," network TV’s strongest drama, and the deliciously overwrought ABC White House soap opera "Scandal."

But "House of Cards" and Frank Underwood operate on their own plane. So does Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), a clean water advocate who shares her husband’s unquenchable thirsts. The first season offered us moments of humanity (or at least character insight) that pulled Frank and Claire back from "Scandal"-like caricature – most notably Claire’s soul-searching her way back to an artistic old boyfriend and Frank discovering a mixed bag of nostalgia in a return to his roots at The Citadel.

But we’re frequently reminded that there’s nobody to admire in Underwood’s expanding house, built in a use-or-get-used Washington where people at all levels are played and discarded. Murder and sex are mere tools, shocking only for their blasé deployment. We saw as much when Frank committed the ultimate sin to save himself, and when Claire visited a dying underling who loves her and hates her husband.

Given the current state of government, few of us see or expect to find many heroes in Washington these days. But it’s a good bet (at least we hope) there’s no one as devious – or as smart – as the intrinsically flawed Frank Underwood lurking in the Capitol. His Achilles’ heel (beside barbecue and the blind fury that being scorned can wrought) is that he needs a release valve – and luckily for viewers, it’s us.

Spacey smashes the fourth wall in asides to the audience that few actors could get away with, in what’s become the show’s hallmark. Underwood constantly lets us in on how his mind works, perhaps more for ego gratification than exposition.

The device is becoming part of the pop culture, as evidence by a self-parodying bit performed by Spacey during the opening of last year’s Emmys. Some viewers probably got the joke only after catching up with the series on Netflix. There’ll be plenty more opportunity to watch Underwood wield his calculated evil cloaked in Southern charm this go-around and next year, when Netflix is expected to stream the third and presumably final season of "House of Cards."

In the meantime, here’s a preview of Season 2 where Frank Underwood’s power grows as he begins a new round of slinging arrows that you won’t find in Cupid’s quill:

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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