“House of Cards” and “Roseanne” don’t have much in common, but their new seasons both faced an unenviable situation — trying to forge ahead without the central character, whose departure was triggered by off-screen controversy. Dealt that bad hand, the “Cards” writers have responded with a truncated final season — one that elevates Robin Wright’s role her new Commander in Chief status, while still providing a window into the world of bare-knuckled political brawling.
An early gripe about the series was that Kevin Spacey’s character, Frank Underwood, always seemed to be playing three-dimensional chess, while everyone else played checkers. Small wonder that his political opponents fell before him, as he broke the fourth wall to eagerly narrate their demise directly to the audience.
Spacey, however, is gone, fired in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct. That heightens the focus on Underwood’s wife, Claire (Wright), who brings a bit more subtlety to the process of governing but proves no less skillful at manipulating those around her.
That’s fine, so far as it goes, but only if the foils provide enough resistance to enhance the underlying drama. The new season of “Cards” (five of the eight episodes were previewed) gives Claire ripped-from-the-headlines antagonists, in the form of Koch brothers-type billionaires — only here, a brother-and-sister tandem, played by Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane. While the star power is impressive, the game they’re playing — too transparently — feels somewhat less so.
Seeking to account for Frank’s absence doesn’t exactly feel organic to the storytelling, but it does add some zest to the plot. At the very least, the storyline brings several dramatic possibilities into play, even if it’s hard to escape the sense that these devices have been hoisted upon the writing staff, who surely wouldn’t have written out Spacey in this way had events not dictated otherwise.