As you may remember from a previous post, I’m very much behind in my popular culture consumption. I have just this week started watching the newest season of House of Cards. I’ve also only just now finished watching the new X-Files reboot.
So of course, now I’ll be doing my review, long after most people have seen the shows.
I’ll start with X-Files, since I’ve managed to watch the whole 6-episode event, as they called it. There are two types of episodes for X-Files. The first is a standard ‘monster of the week’ mystery, where some creature or unsolved mystery brings Mulder and Scully into the field to help explain the unexplainable. The other is the ‘mythology’ of the show, dealing with aliens, conspiracy and cover-ups. Apparently the two types of episodes never make reference to each other, almost as if they exist in separate, parallel universes, though the same characters do appear in both types. I’m not sure if that is completely true, never having analysed all the episodes in that much detail (I haven’t actually seen all the episodes, honestly. I stopped watching soon after Mulder left after season 7, I think it was).
Seeing as how the re-boot was only six episodes, I was hoping they would do a story-arc that spanned the entire season, with a little bit doled out in each episode. You know, like most shows do now. Instead, the first and last episodes were the ‘mythology’, the other four were ‘monster of the week’ ones. That disappointed me. In the past there have been some fantastic ‘monster of the week’ episodes, and even this new season actually had a quite funny one. I was just disappointed that was the route they chose to take. Especially considering one dealt with Islamic terrorists in the US. It’s so clichéd in mainstream American television that the only depiction of Muslims are as terrorists, yet I was hoping for a different representation. But what should I really have expected? The show airs on Fox, the home of the completely ‘fair and balanced’ right-wing Fox News and vehicle for Rupert Murdoch. The only Fox shows that seem to get away with showing Muslims as anything other than the cliché are the Simpsons and Family Guy, both of which are animated and so don’t carry as much cultural weight. Anyway, the point is, only two episodes dealt with the overlying X-Files mythology.
Those two episodes, though, weren’t very good. The show has long hinted at aliens and a government conspiracy to keep knowledge of them secret. This season, though, confirmed aliens beyond a doubt, and took the conspiracy in a different direction by having the cabal manipulating human and alien DNA for their own purposes. It was an interesting twist, and sets up the show for a new season, should it be picked up, but the final episode ended on a cliff-hanger. I hate those. It was not a satisfying conclusion to the show, especially if it’s not renewed.
I have similar mixed feelings about House of Cards. Now in its fourth season, the show has turned to President Frank Underwood running for election. The first two seasons showed him as a man who would do anything to claw his way to power. The third season was about him handling how to be President. The two seasons showing his ascent were the best so far. It showed his as a ruthless, cunning man who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted. He lied, he manipulated, he cheated, he even murdered. There was nothing Frank Underwood would not do. Season three tried to show him balancing to maintain that power in the face of real opposition. Not everyone responded well to his often heavy-handed tactics. Season four is more of that, but wildly improbable.
I’m still only about halfway through the season, but it has taken away much of the believability of the show. Whereas The West Wing was an idealised version of American politics, House of Cards is a realistic, cynical view of the same phenomenon. I’m sure, more often than not, things happen the way depicted in House of Cards rather than The West Wing, but at least The West Wing always seemed grounded in reality. It had actions and consequences, and showed the philosophical struggles those working in government had to deal with. House of Cards, though, doesn’t deal with the human side nearly as much. Frank and Claire have visions and doubts about their progress, but others, not so much. Frank’s Chief of Staff, Doug Stamper, has no qualms about lying, stealing, betraying people or even murdering, all in the name of helping his boss. He could be a sociopath, sure, who doesn’t connect with emotions, but the show has never hinted to that. In season four, Claire, especially, seems to have a goal she is working toward — at one point basically demanding to be nominated as Vice President — but doesn’t listen to advice or practicality from others. As a character who has spent twenty-odd years in political circles, she would have to know that the President’s wife, even if she wanted to one day become president herself, would never get nominated as VP during his term. It doesn’t make political or realistic sense.
So, the show has lost some of its realistic basis, and has taken a turn for the worse. It’s still well acted and has some good dialogue, but is not as good as previous seasons. If you’ve already watched all the episodes leading up to it, you might as well continue. If you haven’t started the show, stop after season two.