The online version of Esquire magazine to which, in fairness, nobody turns for authoritative television reviews, is apoplectic. Outraged, scandalized. About House of Cards (season three is now streaming on Netflix), that is.
Now-president Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is quoted as saying, "I don't want a version. I want a vision." This drives the online Esquire mad: "Who in 2015 can believe that a sitting president would say something so childish? The third season of House of Cards makes The West Wing look like gritty docudrama."
No fair. Raising the issue of believability in the context of House of Cards is rather like suggesting it's implausible that Macbeth would order that Macduff's castle be seized and, for good measure, have Lady Macduff and her children murdered. Because, you know, in reality, wiping out Macduff's missus and kids is going too far. It's rather like looking at some video of Rob Ford when he was mayor of Toronto (take your pick) and saying, "Who can believe that a sitting mayor would behave so childishly?"
House of Cards borrows from Shakespeare. All those asides from Frank alerting the audience to the total skulduggery he's planning. His wife, Claire (Robin Wright), is Lady Macbeth-like, though more like the Lady Macbeth played by Francesca Annis in Roman Polanski's film version than the traditional interpretation.
Mostly, mind you, House of Cards relies on the audience's primordial interest in voyeurism and devotion to outrageous villains. It's about us looking awestruck at filth, sleaze and corruption on an epic scale.
The series has not been in the approximate vicinity of veracity since its first hour. That was when some subtlety was required to establish the political milieu of Washington and the core characters. A few episodes later, House of Cards was operating fully in the arena of outrageousness. And at this point, with three seasons to binge upon, it's possible to observe how it differs from the powerful long-form storytelling style established by HBO and Showtime.
In the Netflix model, it's the binge-watching experience that matters. You are sucked into the narrative, accepting its flagrant abuses of logic and coherence. House of Cards does not develop with the organic storytelling steadiness of most premium-cable television. Great long-form TV, now in abundance, is often built upon suggestion, the deft placement of building blocks of plot and a richness of character development afforded by the long arc of a 10- to 13-hour narrative. With House of Cards it's all about taking advantage of the one-long-gulp experience.
Veracity is not a material issue. Villainy is. In season three, Frank is president and his missus is angling for a very powerful job. Things for her go awry. What matters now, after all the bizarre manoeuvres and double crosses, is hanging onto power. Frank is trapped, caged almost, as president. And, caged, his villainy gets going with more viper-like malice than ever. Of course, he's an outrageously implausible Democrat-in-charge. He sounds more like a Republican train wreck of outlandish plans and attitudes than any Democrat.
It doesn't matter. Once you're engulfed in the series, your instinct is to savour the delicious villainy. The series is a high-octane soap opera, and glorious as that, and that alone. It doesn't actually bear scrutiny. It beggars belief.
Raising the issue of veracity only diminishes the enjoyment. Besides, it doesn't matter if the ad industry in the 1960s didn't operate exactly as portrayed on Mad Men. On one level, with some series, none of that matters. What matters is that it is emphatically not a docudrama. It's a villainy-drama.
Hell's Kitchen (Fox, City, 8 p.m.) is back for its 14th season, because there's a law that Gordon Ramsay can never be off the TV schedule. Tonight: "Ramsay splits the contestants into two teams along gender lines and asks them to present their signature dishes, with the winning team getting a night with William Shatner." Which kind of sounds like the booby prize.
You Can't Lick Your Elbow (OLN , 9 p.m.) is this: "Host and NFL Today analyst Tony Gonzalez teaches viewers 'body hacks' that let viewers hold their breath for four minutes, see in the dark or clear nasal passages with the touch of a finger." If there isn't a "Don't try this at home" warning, there should be.