Netflix and producers Media Rights Capital have renewed the streaming giant’s breakthrough original series for a fifth season (the fourth debuts March 4), but the show must go on without creator and showrunner Beau Willimon. The question now is whether the popular political melodrama, starring Kevin Spacey as conniving politician Frank Underwood and Robin Wright as his icy, ambitious wife, Claire, can sustain critics’ and viewers’ interest without him.
The most obvious precedent for an acclaimed series tanking after the departure of its leading creative force is “The West Wing,” which lost both writer/creator Aaron Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme after its fourth season. The strain of producing 22 episodes of broadcast drama year after year had already become apparent by the time Sorkin and Schlamme left in the spring of 2003, with a dreadful cliffhanger involving the disappearance of President Bartlet’s daughter, Zoey, and his decision to step down by invoking the 25th amendment. (Hey, at least it featured Elisabeth Moss!) I’m no “West Wing” revisionist, either. The series never fully recovered.
Whether Willimon defines the voice of “House of Cards” as Sorkin and Schlamme did “The West Wing,” or as Dan Harmon did “Community” — which its fans despised so much after his firing that NBC eventually brought him back — is another matter. I’ve long held that “House of Cards” has been on the decline since [SPOILER] at the start of Season 2 (am I allowed to talk about it yet?), which largely left Frank without a worthy adversary, and its remaining merits — Wright’s performance; the writing’s cutting, if mannered, sense of politics as a chess match — are not beyond the command of other screenwriters. After all, its most significant formal flourishes, Frank’s greasy asides to the viewer, are pulled whole cloth from the BBC original.
It’s not clear from Netflix’s announcement why Willimon is departing. There’s been no news of note about his Jack Johnson miniseries for HBO, with Ken Burns directing, since the project was first announced in 2013. Like “The Good Wife” showrunners Robert and Michelle King, who’ll depart after the current seventh season whether or not CBS picks up an eighth, it’s possible he never planned on more, or his interest in “House of Cards” has simply run its course. The series will likely be fine without him. The problem for former fans like myself is whether “fine” is good enough to stick around.