Our surreal reality show of a presidential race almost cries out at times for fourth-wall-breaking asides from "House of Cards" scourge Frank Underwood, who once memorably confided to viewers: "Democracy is so overrated."
Underwood, who clawed his way to the White House with bloodstained hands, returns Friday for a fourth season of political shenanigans on the Netflix drama. But his grip on power – and the popular culture – could be in jeopardy. The show, built on penchant for surprises, now vies for viewers' attention amid a real-life campaign battlefield riddled with upended expectations.
Not that Underwood, embodied by Kevin Spacey with a killer snarl and smooth Southern drawl, ever met a challenge he couldn't grab by the throat and throttle.
In the first two seasons, Underwood cracked his way into the Oval Office, going from a bitter House majority whip to an unelected vice president and president by scheming the downfall – and worse – of all in his way. The third season, though, seemed tame by comparison, tackling the process of governing, with storylines about domestic politics (President Underwood pushing for a risky, but potentially legacy-making jobs bill) and international crises (President Underwood battling a Putin-esque Russian leader).
While not as exciting as the first two go-arounds, Season 3 offered a modest helping of slow-cooked intrigue by mixing campaign machinations, addiction, smoldering emotions and the requisite bloodshed.
The season's, if not the series', most explosive scene came in the last episode, when Underwood’s Faustian bargain with his wife and failed UN ambassador, Claire (Robin Wright), goes up in flames. "Without me, you are nothing," he tells her.
She seems poised to prove the opposite in Season 4 after declaring she’s leaving him – and, even worse, that he’ll have to go to New Hampshire alone to wage a tough primary fight.
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Whether you're a Netflix binger or patient viewer, it could be challenging to watch this season without thinking about how Underwood would comport himself in our current presidential primaries, which are only metaphorically cutthroat. The raucous debate stage doesn’t allow for private asides, though there's undoubtedly enough hot air to blow down a mere house of cards.
Check out a preview above as "House of Cards" strives to surprise fans again and prove it's not so overrated.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects 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.