[This is a review of the House of Cards season 3 premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
In the season 3 premiere, House of Cards has apparently become the Doug Stamper show. It's a bold choice, considering Doug spent most of season 2 having a former prostitute read him stories, before getting brained by the very same woman in the Maryland woods. And for a series so intent on sharing the innermost thoughts of its antihero protagonist, as he ascends to the political mountaintop, shoveling everything he desires into his proverbial gaping maw along the way, the shift in point of view isn't just an unexpected departure; it's an obstacle that keeps the season from truly beginning with its first episode.
The shift is noticeable, but it's still the same old House of Cards. The series remains committed to assigning each installment an ascetic chapter number – the premiere being 'Chapter 27' – the austerity of which is a direct contradiction to Frank and Claire Underwood's dogged pursuit of gratification and power. And by opening the season with Kevin Spacy addressing the audience, while relieving himself on his father's headstone the series maintains its reputation for being what is essentially a trashy melodrama told with incredibly slick production values.
Aside from Frank's pre-credit sequence cemetery micturition, what's most remarkable about 'Chapter 27' is how benign – and frankly milquetoast – the whole thing is. Frank Underwood remains at arm's length for much of the episode. He addresses the audience a nominal amount, discussing his dead father in hasty fashion, only to return to them again to confirm Donald Blythe has indeed become his vice president. That means the majority of the episode is dedicated to Michael Kelly's performance as Doug, who spends his time recovering from Rachel's response to his attempted Adriana-ing of her last season.
It's great to see Kelly take center stage, even though it eventually devolves into a predictably superficial exploration of Doug's weird proclivities and battles with addiction - which, to his credit, he manages to combine by filling a syringe with bourbon and having a Rachel lookalike squirt it into his mouth. The overall dearth of Frank and Claire Underwood doesn't generate much in the way of anticipation; it simply generates the feeling that the show is searching for a sense of purpose and direction.
What's worse, 'Chapter 27' doesn’t even have the wherewithal to answer the one question the audience is dying to know: where is Cashew, and how is he doing now that Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson's hacker extraordinaire) finds himself reluctantly in the employ of the FBI?
Show-stealing guinea pigs aside, the absence of concrete purpose was a major concern that began long before Frank banged his genuine imitation Citadel ring on the desk in the Oval Office. Last season's relatively unopposed ascension to the presidency was a sign that season 3 might be saddled with the problem of Frank being without a clear, tangible want. And that's basically what causes trouble for the premiere.
That's not to say there isn't some drama. For starters, things aren't going great in the first few months of the nascent Underwood presidency, but for the show to split its focus between Doug's struggles with his marginalized position and Frank eyeing a reelection campaign that's roughly two years off, there's no real sense of urgency. The episode does its best to add some much-needed depth and gravitas to Frank's position, but that mostly boils down to a few perfunctory flybys on a controversial piece of legislation that threatens to wipeout entitlement programs, and the bombing of a terrorist, weighed down by the loss of civilian life.
These things feel very official – despite being overly simplistic and didactic – but the problem is: that's not remotely close to what House of Cards is good at. Policy, the War on Terror, and the ethical concerns of bombing the civilian population of a foreign country are not in the show's wheelhouse. It would certainly like them to be, as the series continues to stubbornly insist it is a serious, prestige-worthy political drama. But that is not where this series operates. It operates in greasy muck of prurient desire and the Underwood's ravenous feasting on those who stand in the way of their quest for power and legacy.
Here? Not so much as a morsel is consumed.
Now that Frank is in the White House, he's seemingly lost his appetite. There's nothing driving him, and that lack of energy is readily apparent. As an episode, 'Chapter 27' struggles to present the case that season 3 will be propelled by anything more tantalizing than Frank's maintenance and repair of his already troubled presidency. Perhaps Claire's desire to be appointed as ambassador to the U.N. will help fuel things, but right now it feels like the season's first trick is to show how well it can tread water, and how self-aware it can be by having Stephen Colbert launch a few stinging zingers at Frank.
This episode's shortcomings are partly a function of the Netflix model of television consumption – that being: like any kind of junk food, it's designed to keep you eating. The problem is: in all of the premiere's bland 58 minutes (and some change), it struggles to establish a palpable sense of urgency or viable concrete want for the protagonist. That's not so much eating because you can't get enough; it's eating because you're searching for flavor. All of which is surprising, considering how the show is built around the charisma of Kevin Spacy and the idea that the audience has a direct line to his character's thoughts. If Frank Underwood can't or won't articulate a compelling want, then how is the rest of the show supposed to?
In the end, 'Chapter 27' is not a bad episode; it's just dull – which may actually be worse. Say what you will about Zoe Barnes' death by commuter train in the season 2 premiere, but at least that elicited a response; there was some energy expended in making that event happen. Maybe things will pick up dramatically in episode 2 (no spoilers below if you've already watched ahead, please), but if so, then why not start there?
House of Cards is currently available in its entirety on Netflix. Stay tuned to Screen Rant, as we will continue our coverage of season 3 in the coming days.