I've been trying to figure out why the third season of the Netflix drama House of Cards proved such a disappointment. I think I've hit on the answer — but I can't explain without spoilers.
The first season was darkly comic fun, as we met Claire and Frank Underwood, the ambitious political couple for whom sex and murder were simply tools of their ascension. The second wasn't quite as delightful, but included some sharp plot points, such as the journalists on Frank's trail, and his battle for influence against billionaire presidential pal Raymond Tusk.
The third season threw away most of the darkness and almost all of the criminality (until the last episode) — in short, the very aspects that had made House of Cards so compellingly watchable — and gave us instead battles over vaguely described issues of policy aimed at resolving crises that were never explained. The show became The West Wing without the talky gravitas — overlooking the extent to which the talky gravitas made that NBC White House drama what it was.
The biggest problem was that in Frank's various battles over policy, there was never much at stake. He came up with a plan to send an international force to the Jordan Valley. When The West Wing tackled the Middle East, viewers were treated to a slowly escalating sense of crisis to drive home the urgency of presidential action. Here, we had no idea what goaded Frank to move. We did get to see Claire, serving as United Nations ambassador, dressing down the Israeli ambassador at a party, where anyone could hear. This is what got the Israelis on board? Really?
On the international stage, Frank was outmaneuvered constantly by Russian President Viktor Petrov (an uncanny Vladimir Putin clone), and Claire was forced out of her UN post. Oh, and the plan didn't work on the ground either. But we can't tell whether the failure mattered to world peace, because we still have no clue what was going on in the region at the time.
Some Season 3 reviewers think the show just ran out of stories. I think, rather, the writers just concentrated on the wrong ones. Imagine if Gavin, the hacker — and one of the show's most realistic characters — had spent the season on the run, taunting the Underwoods with dirty secrets he had collected before fingering reporter Lucas Goodwin for the FBI. Suppose the journal with the supposedly inflammatory tale of Claire's abortion had been the season's MacGuffin, no one knowing its precise whereabouts, everyone (including, say, a vengeful Tusk) searching for the rumored prize as the Underwoods sweated it out. And why could there not have been at least one dogged investigator for Frank to decide to put out of the way? Coming up with a way for the president actually to commit a murder would have been a challenge for the writers, but oh, what fun for the viewers.
House of Cards has been renewed for 2016. I'm eager to watch. But, please, less policy and more mayhem. Or, since we'll be seeing the election campaign, here's a slogan: Let Frank be Frank.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a Yale law professor.