The biggest challenge for writers on a serial TV drama is how to build the conflict over the course of a season. In a “stand-alone” show like a police procedural, where you have to solve a different murder every week, this is not an issue. But in a serial with multiple desires and storylines connecting and extending through 10-22 episodes a season, this is one of the greatest challenges in all of storytelling.
House of Cards has been one of the best TV dramas since it began four seasons ago. Based on a British show, House of Cards tracks the rise in power of Frank Underwood and his Lady Macbeth-like wife, Claire. The show has a number of strengths: a complex, ruthless main character, an even more complex wife, a slew of conniving characters playing the power game, an inside look at American politics at the highest level, an emphasis on strategy and a plot that is only slightly less intricate than Game of Thrones.
But this American Game of Thrones has always had one glaring flaw: a weak opposition. For a show with a master strategist as main character to be great, he must go up against another master strategist, or at least a group of opponents who together can push him to the limit (for details on how to construct a TV drama and build the opposition and plot over the season, check out the TV Drama Class on CD).
The quality of House of Cards over four seasons has been based almost totally on how good Frank’s opponents are. Season 1 started well because Frank had less power and was going up against an aggressive press and some tough and powerful political opponents. But as the season wore on, the political opponents got stupid, so Frank’s success was too easy.
Season 2 had a huge drop in quality because Frank’s main political opponent was a President who was so dumb he practically gave the presidency away. Season 3 was better because Frank was facing a smart Russian president and a tough, determined contender for his own job.
The first five episodes of season 4 have been the best in the history of the show. Why? Because Frank’s main opponent is his wife, Claire, by far the smartest and most ruthless opponent Frank has ever faced. In these episodes you see clearly one of the most important principles in all of story: the hero is only as good as the person he fights. The punch, counter-punch between these two is terrific, a couple of heavyweights going toe to toe.
Sure enough, the quality of the show starts to decline, from episode 6 on, when Frank and Claire reunite to take on the world. Over the rest of the season, most of the outside opponents crumble, either because of stupidity or fear.
The sequence of episodes in season 4 highlights the other big flaw on the show: the absurdity of the plot. Believability of plot is not based on a fixed standard. It’s based on the parameters set up by the story’s genre. For example, we don’t think it’s ridiculous that Superman can fly. Within the fantasy action form, this is completely believable, and if we want to experience the pleasures of that form, we must accept this stretching of reality going in.
But the rules of believability are much more strict in a more “realistic” form like political crime. And they become stricter still when a show highlights its authenticity, as House of Cards does. Season 4 plays with such minutiae of American national politics as the actual workings of a House district, the nomination of a Vice President and especially the vagaries of an open political convention.
But this sword cuts both ways. If you play the authenticity, you have to get it right. And as season 4 progresses, the writers often get it so wrong even a political novice would laugh out loud.
Much like previous seasons, season 4 begins in a stretched but believable political reality. Frank and Claire are close to an open marital breakup, which puts a tremendous strain on Frank’s presidential campaign. So far, so good.
But as soon as Frank and Claire are back on the same team, the writers have to go back to creating drama, and plot, from outside opposition, from those seeking to beat Frank for the presidency. These opponents don’t come close to matching Claire in their ability to challenge Frank. Sure enough, from that point on, the absurdity of the political techniques Frank uses grows to laughable proportions.
The entire second half of the season turns on Frank, the sitting President, holding an open convention so he can swing some backroom deals to make Claire his Vice President. This is so ludicrous on so many levels that all I could see from then on was the plot holes.
There is no greater story challenge than writing for television. If you want to take it on, stay focused on the ongoing relationship between the hero and the main opponent. Get that right and most of the other pieces of the puzzle will fall into place.