Netflix’s accidental leak of “House of Cards'” third season (shush, conspiracy theorists), stole some of the thunder from its grand unveiling on February 27th. But since the leak only lasted long enough for people to watch a single episode, the small handful of critics allowed to view the season’s first half-dozen in advance still have a substantial edge. (Their reviews are free of all but the vaguest spoilers.)
Read more: First Impressions From Netflix’s Leaked ‘House of Cards,’ Season 3
Their conclusions thus far split into two schools of thought. One, which tends to involve approving references to Greek tragedy, believes that “House of Cards” was doing great before and continues to do great now. Frank Underwood’s long-schemed-for occupation of the Oval Office presents creator Beau Willimon and co. with the ability to raise their sights to the top of the government’s org chart, and Frank’s increased profile makes him a target for some overdue comeuppance.
The other finds its endless succession of plot twists wearing thin, and the show in desperate need of change. The shift in setting is not enough to alter “House of Cards'” basic DNA, its attempts to clothe soap-opera machinations in prestige-TV drag rather than embrace its own absurdity, Shonda Rhimes-style. If its debut on Netflix pushed TV forward, “House of Cards” hasn’t caught up, since surpassed by its streaming service-mates “Orange Is the New Black,” “Transparent” and other shows.
In a week, you’ll be able to start making up your own mind, but for now savor these initial takes, and start plotting to clear your weekend.
Reviews of “House of Cards,” Season 3
Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter
You can only ask your audience to buy into the political shenanigans of Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and wife Claire (Robin Wright) for so long, given the Gumbyesque contortions that the series uses to entertain. That manipulation often comes at the expense of believability — because “House of Cards” refuses to restrain itself and often goes, in a parlance that Francis would approve of, balls out in an effort to make the Underwoods ridiculously ruthless and the series ridiculously entertaining. Unfortunately, after holding out against the cruel intrusion of reality, at some point in season two of House of Cards, ridiculous was the key word for pretty much everything in it.
That wouldn’t be much of a problem if “House of Cards” was, like a true soap opera, keenly aware of its reputation (like, say, “Scandal”). Meaning, if “House of Cards” really believed that its ridiculousness was a wink-wink at the audience, its diversions from believability wouldn’t be so troubling. Instead, “House of Cards” has been the poster series for both the popularity of Netflix as a streaming service with strong original content and as a big player for the service at awards shows. It takes itself very seriously.
James Poniewozik, Time
The series needed a change-up and season 3 provides one, a bit; Frank is not fighting to get somewhere but to stay where he is, and his enemy is not so much a single Big Bad as it is the processes of government and diplomacy. When he’s off-balance, we are, and that makes the plot turns more interesting. But there’s something new mixed in among the mustache-twirling and predictable iconoclasm: a strain of earnestness, especially as the storyline becomes more involved in real-world issues like the persecution of gay Russians. It’s not always a good fit, and it results in some draggy, speechy storylines. But it’s a change, and that’s something “House of Cards” can use.
Brian Lowry, Variety
In terms of classy actors in a high-stakes setting, it’s solidly entertaining. Still, the series that set Netflix on the path to programming prestige also feels played out, as if it should have retired without seeking a third term. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright remain splendid as the central couple, but with their quest for power having succeeded, series architect Beau Willimon seems forced to resort to unconvincing contortions to maintain the drama. Even then, the first half of Season 3 feels flimsy, having essentially morphed into an inordinately ruthless version of “The West Wing.”
Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly
If “House of Cards” were a true Greek tragedy, this season would end with Frank getting karmic retribution, whether it’s from Claire, his former associate, or a new political reporter (Kim Dickens) who’s bent on exposing corruption. But at a time when the real-life government is so often gridlocked, it’s still satisfying to watch him make power moves and actually get what he wants. He might be evil, but he’s very effective. Besides, this is Washington. If his downfall comes, he’ll just wait four years and rise again
David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun
Last year, I wrote about how deeply influenced “House of Cards” is by great theater. For all the talk of digital and new media generated by the series because of its mode of distribution, it is firmly rooted in the traditional theater going back to the ancient Greeks, and therein lies much of its dramatic punch.I attributed this in the past mostly to Kevin Spacey’s deep roots in and commitment to the stage, and that’s accurate. But Season 3 more than either of the previous two made me realize what an outstanding playwright Willimon is – I mean, a really great American playwright.