I can’t add much to the feverish discussion surrounding the latest, much-anticipated release of House of Cards episodes on Netflix. Similarly, I won’t be eloquent about HBO comedy Veep. Both have been around for a few seasons – and in both cases, the new seasons began with the stakes higher than ever for the main characters, Frank Underwood and Selina Meyer, respectively, because both had since last season, ascended to the presidency of the United States.
House of Cards is a drama predicated on a lot of underhanded and often illegal machinations and dealmaking. Veep is a comedy predicated on the idea that vice presidents are little more than puppets who appear for photo-ops and toe the party line. Each show has its strengths – particularly their stellar and varied casts (as I have written before – I will watch things just because I like the actors in it). These shows are no exception.
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright head a cast that includes quite a few great performers. I happen to love Molly Parker, and her Jackie Sharp seems genuinely conflicted at times about balancing the need for honesty and humanity against the requirement to lie and scheme to achieve upper-echelon power. Michael Kelly’s continued portrayal of Doug Stamper as a shady operator, willing to do whatever it takes, has been riveting. I also enjoyed seeing Lars Mikkelsen (brother of Mads Mikkelsen of Hannibal fame) playing the Russian president to idiomatic perfection – “it’s a lot of work being a Dane trying to do a Russian accent” (naturally adding a tick in the checklist of even more Scandinavian men appearing on TV). There is a lot of drama, a lot of intrigue, and there are many unlikable people and actions here.
In that sense, I didn’t always enjoy the latest season. Wright’s performance as the First Lady is as commendable as her spot-on work throughout the series – she commits to and embodies Claire Underwood completely. But the story about her husband naming her as US Ambassador to the UN felt a bit half-baked to me. Even if such a move is possible, it seems so unrealistic and highly risky given the stakes pitted against her inexperience. Her demand that the president yield to her, reasoning that it is “her time”, might be authentic, if petulant and crybaby in tone, but the outcome feels forced. Nothing good comes of it.
Meanwhile the troubling trajectory Doug Stamper is on feels quite genuine, even if unrealistic, and Kelly embraces it with aplomb. He doesn’t just lie down and die when the president distances himself. When he is no longer in the inner circle, he finds ways to ensure he will get back there. Not pleasant ways, but sometimes chilling and always manipulative schemes to get him the information, leverage and power he needs to return to the president’s side.
Veep is of course, for the most part, a horse of another color. Despite superficial similarities, the shows – their casts, their tones, their drive, their stories, their purposes – could not be more different. In previous seasons, all the characters bring something special, comedic (sometimes embarrassingly comedic) to the table and present a farcical take on (vice) presidential politics. Headed up by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who is really in her element here, as vice president (now president) Selina Meyer, the cast is made up of characters both overly driven and egotistical who compete with each other to try to win favor with the VP, as is the case with Anna Chlumsky and Reid Scott. Both are smart and want to be at the forefront of Meyer’s campaigns and staff – and often ended up, for lack of a better term, “eating shit” on Meyer’s behalf. Tons of other great characters played by great actors – nothing more notable that I can add. (I am so happy to see Patton Oswalt on the show as the new VP’s chief of staff. Oswalt’s showing up everywhere these days, and I love it: Justified, a hilarious episode of the beleaguered Battle Creek, voiceover in The Goldbergs, voice work in BoJack Horseman, a role in Brooklyn Nine-Nine… and he is still something to miss about United States of Tara!). It’s a funny show, and keeps getting funnier – while House of Cards feels like it’s sliding.
All of that said and done, if you want the best political drama ever to be on TV, it’s Danish and includes the aforementioned Lars Mikkelsen: Borgen.