The Trump era has raised questions for TV shows set in Washington, wondering how fictional drama can possibly match the unscripted one in the White House. “House of Cards” answers that, inadvertently, by enhancing its soapy qualities, in a fifth season that again has more to do with the utterly unbridled pursuit of power than politics.
That’s not to say topics raised or brushed upon by the Netflix drama don’t periodically collide with reality, sometimes in uncomfortable ways. Picking up where season four left off, the show finds President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) in the waning days of a presidential campaign, leveraging fear of terrorism to bolster their prospects.
“My husband and I want to protect you,” Claire intones in a campaign ad, while her husband imposes an immigration ban even as he insists, “Fear is un-American.” As usual, Frank’s public statements run counter to his private plotting, as he marvels at how sheep-like people are, stoking apprehension to serve his interests and “control the conversation.”
There are keen insights over the course of the season (all of which was previewed) about matters like the toxic nature of partisanship, the influence of dark money and cynicism in how the political class plays to voters’ worst impulses.
Still, “House of Cards” has always operated on the fringes of absurdity, where murder and blackmail are among the Underwoods’ tools of persuasion. That was especially true during Season 1 — as Frank rose to the Oval Office by eliminating one impediment after another — but has persisted even after he had the levers of presidential power at his disposal.
That basic template also characterizes the campaign storyline, which encompasses a bit too much of the 13-episode season. The plot regularly veers into outlandish territory — starting with Frank having chosen Claire as his running mate — that, whatever the parallels, shares more with the frothy camp of “Scandal” than reality, even our current one.
That’s because for the Underwoods, politics is less about the art of the deal than mastery of the double cross. The couple’s tactics are defined by their exaggerated brazenness, usually carried out with help from Frank’s chief of staff/enforcer, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly).
The show’s street cred continues to attract an impressive assortment of supporting players — including Joel Kinnaman, Neve Campbell, Patricia Clarkson and Campbell Scott — along with plenty of cameos by news people as themselves, the ultimate symbol of how hip the show is perceived to be.
Frankly, “House of Cards” doesn’t consistently reach that level of cool in Season 5, if it ever really did. But Spacey and Wright again deliver such toothsome, showy performances — owing more to Lord and Lady Macbeth than Bill and Hillary — that the show remains highly watchable, despite those instances where it bubbles a little too over the top.
The producers also incorporate several nifty smaller moments throughout, such as Frank and Claire watching “Double Indemnity” on the eve of the election. The finale, meanwhile, sets up a reasonably juicy and dramatically fertile scenario for what comes next.
As one of the dramas that helped put Netflix on the map, “House of Cards” premiered at a very different moment. Yet however crazy real-life politics have become, the Underwoods’ bag of dirty tricks still trumps them.
“House of Cards” premieres May 30 on Netflix.