7 Ways 'House of Cards' Could Be the Best Comedy on TV
A lot of people have been watching the melodramatic political series House of Cards on Netflix (which I believe is a remake of the highly acclaimed "How a Bill Becomes a Law" episode of Schoolhouse Rock), and many of these viewers are complaining about how silly it is. They're not wrong, but they're failing to see the opportunity here. With a few small changes, House of Cards could go from a so-so drama to one of the greatest comedies of our time.
Needless to say, the following article will pretty much consist entirely of spoilers. Please stop reading if you don't want to find out that Frank is actually not the original werewolf and that his death at the hands of President Van Helsing does not end the werewolf plague.
Anyway, make your choice -- I've got to get started, there's a lot to get through here. So here's what I'm suggesting:
Frank Has Actually Been Talking to Himself the Whole Time
I figure I'll start with this in case the clumsy eyes of some people who don't know how to skip spoilers stumble on down this far. The very first thing anyone finds out about this show is that the main character, Frank Underwood, talks to the camera a lot. Breaking the ol' fourth wall, if you will. This device can sometimes be daring and sometimes be what we in the business refer to as "too precious by half." Personally, I would say House of Cards is leaning heavily toward preciousness in this case.
DISCLAIMER: May not be actual dialogue from the show.
But this is a really easy lemon to turn into lemonade. These fourth wall hijinks can be turned from an overly cute narrative device into a subtle chronicle of a man losing his mind with just a few camera angle changes.
I'd suggest ramping it up slowly, maybe for the first one or even two episodes just doing the regular "talking to the camera" thing, no change. Then maybe right at the end of the second episode, while Frank is monologing at the audience, switch to a slightly different camera angle as he keeps yakking at what you can now see is a blank wall.
"Holy shit," the viewers will say to each other, "he's talking to nobody!" It will be quite the topic of conversation at the water cooler over the next week, except that all the episodes are released at once, so it actually won't.
For the next episode, when everybody will be watching his monologues intently, you start having the actors in the background sneak glances at him, really subtle ones, like they're trying to look like they're not looking. By midway through the season, a character spots Frank talking to himself and nudges another person in the background, who shakes their head and discourages the first person from calling attention to it. Slowly the viewer realizes that everyone around Frank knows about his problem, and they're all worried about him but don't want to bring it up because they're scared of him.
It comes to a head when he's on the House floor during a crucial vote or speech or whatever, maybe he's even on national TV, and he just stops in the middle and starts talking to the "audience," which today happens to be located on an empty chair nearby. And he's just totally dishing about his evil plans.
Then there's this huge scandal, and I think that'll be some great material for the writers. You'd think something like this would end his political career and therefore the show, but it'll be OK -- you can just have Iran get nuked or Justin Bieber get assassinated and people will forget about a middling news item like a congressman going crazy on the House floor and telling a chair he's going to make those sons of bitches pay.
Frank Actually Educates the Audience
I expect the writers to put up a fuss about that last idea because it destroys the whole premise of the show they spent years creating, boo hoo. Writers are so sensitive. But fine, if they don't have the skill to write a show about a mentally ill man slowly losing touch with reality until he eventually believes he has become president and thinks he's walking around the Oval Office when he is actually pacing around a padded cell punching an imaginary desk -- if they don't have the guts to handle that kind of visionary edge -- then I'll suggest a weaker alternative.
Viewers may have noticed that as the show progresses Frank starts saying less and less, and his asides often consist of him giving the camera a three-second look of exasperation before turning back to the other characters, as if the writers ran out of things for him to say. This seems lazy to me. They might as well have him say, "Insert pithy observation here!" If you have to meet a quota for fourth wall moments per episode and can't think of anything for Frank to say, then throw some "fun facts" at the audience. Like the president is droning on and Frank turns to the camera and says, "Did you know the loudest animal in the world is the pistol shrimp?" and then turns back toward the president like nothing happened.
Make Slugline Even Sluggier and Linier
From a comedy perspective, it's really hard to improve on Slugline. First, it's called Slugline. Second, the offices of this fictional news blogging site were apparently designed by someone who has seen pictures of them wacky workplaces all the hip startup companies have and seems to have confused the conference rooms and lounges with the actual workspaces where employees work.
They seem to think cool tech people view desks as restrictive or something. This is why you have some poor lady sitting on an office chair trying to balance her laptop/tablet on her lap while typing.
See, what cutting edge blogging companies hate is walls, but they loooooove desks.
That's BuzzFeed. It's not exactly a nest of beanbags and bar stools, is it?
So, sure, it's funny that Slugline's office was designed by a space alien that saw a photo of an empty startup office and made all kinds of assumptions, like they saw a ping pong table and said, "I bet that surface is used as a desk!" I think they should go broader, though, and spend more time on it (we get only a few glimpses).
I think people should sit on the ping pong table while setting their laptop on a beanbag, leaning down awkwardly to try to reach it. I think people's accessories should keep falling through the cracks in the pallets they're using as a table and they say "God dammit!" and pick up their mice and styluses, but never consider leaving the pallets and finding a better surface. I think the laptop should fall off of that poor lady's lap and break so she has to bring it up to the editor and ask for a replacement, and the editor just sighs and goes "That's the seventh one this week. Why does this keep happening?"
"Maybe we need MORE PALLETS!"
More Literal Cliches
This show isn't big on subtlety. When they address politicians being in bed with corporate interests, they have a politician literally in bed with a corporate lobbyist.
I think this is great but needs to be taken further. For example, when Frank bribes congressmen with pork for their districts, he should literally roll barrels of butchered pig parts over to their offices. The writers really seem to enjoy having characters murder animals with their bare hands as shorthand for how ruthless they are, so this will provide a lot of great opportunities for Frank to kill pigs in different ways every time he has to trade for political favors.
"Can I count on your vote for the education bill?"
Speaking of animal cruelty, at one point Big Businessman Raymond Tusk snaps a bird's neck for making too much noise. I think this is a missed opportunity. Instead of snapping its neck, he should have bashed its head in with a rock and then killed the bird's wife when she made a big stink over it, using the same rock. He could do this in the midst of a phone call where he comes up with a plan that solves two of his problems.
Raymond Tusk Should Be an Anthropomorphic Walrus
Speaking of Raymond Tusk, did anyone else think when they first heard his name that he should be an anthropomorphic walrus?
No? Well, take it or leave it; I've got some other good ones.
In the course of his rise to power, Frank kills two people, which is about average for a president. His first kill is Peter Russo, a rebellious pawn of his. He leaves him passed out drunk in a car in a closed garage with the engine running, where he dies of carbon monoxide poisoning. The perfect crime. Or is it?
Interesting fact: It's a lot harder to kill yourself with car exhaust these days thanks to high emission standards (thanks, Obama). It's not impossible, but it's definitely more difficult. So it's totally plausible that Frank goes home, conscience heavily weighted with the deed he's just done, and then he gets a text:
Frank's second murder is a pesky reporter named Zoe Barnes. She is such a grating character that after her first appearance I said, "I hope she gets hit by a bus." In one of those unpredictable twists the show is known for, she is instead hit by a train.
Frank lures her to a train station, they talk for a bit, and as the sound of the approaching train builds to a crescendo, he shoves her onto the track, and bam, perfect timing, the train hits her.
My suggestion actually saves the show some money in this case. He shoves her onto the tracks, and then, WHOOOOOSH! The train rumbles by on the opposite track behind him. Whoops!
It is the most awkward of moments as he just stares foolishly at Zoe, who's standing there and holding her hands out with a "What the fuck?" look.
"Seriously, what the fuck, Frank?"
Then you play the theme song from Curb Your Enthusiasm, and roll credits.
Frank Is Gerald Ford
Adding Gerald Ford to anything makes it funnier, but it's especially apt for this show, as he also was pulled out of Congress to be appointed vice president in the middle of a term and then became president after an impeachment and resignation (replacing our greatest president, Richard Nixon).
Instead of creating new characters for the show, what if they took a slightly, just ever so slightly revisionist view of the Ford succession where he was a cold-hearted scheming genius who played a fool for the public and puppeteered a trusting, kind-hearted Richard Nixon into a series of reputation-destroying scandals so that he could usurp him as president?
You could even totally keep Kevin Spacey, because when has an actor playing a president ever looked even a bit like that president? You're lucky if you get one who even sounds like that president.
So you've got Gerald Ford giving private asides to the camera now and then about this chapter of Machiavelli's The Prince he read today, and then a reporter walks by and he's all "Whu-uh-whoooa!" and trips over the nearest rug. Later we find out he actually hired Chevy Chase to help perpetuate his image as a hapless oaf.
Edgy comedian or political pawn?
Meanwhile, he's somehow using reverse psychology to manipulate Nixon into recording everything, secretly spraying flop sweat on him at every debate, and promising he'll find out what the DNC is up to over in them Watergate offices and will totally keep the president out of it.
Also he is secretly getting it on with Woodward and Bernstein as he feeds them information. So there you go, writers: There's the threesome you insist on shoehorning into this show. Also, I guess the Deep Throat nickname becomes more appropriate. Oh man, I grossed myself out.
His terrible personal scandal can be the fact that his birth name was Leslie Lynch King Jr. (this is true) and that he changed it to Gerald Ford at about age 3 (also true) because his commanding officer was killed in combat and he stole his identity (not actually true). This will make a great flashback if you can find a good enough 3-year-old actor.
Sure, he's cute, but can he do self-hatred?
So since it's looking like there might be some snags in the way of shooting Season 3 right now, this would probably be a great time for the show to comb through Seasons 1 and 2 in the ol' editing suite and try on these changes for a spin.
I made more of these than I needed for the first section and I mean to use them all.