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Fifth 'House Of Cards' Season Speaks To Trump Era


Now to television. People often talk about life imitating art. But over the past few months, how many times have you talked about the news out of Washington and somebody said, this is so "House Of Cards?" Well, the fifth and latest season of "House Of Cards" debuts on Netflix on Tuesday. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans tells us the series has taken great advantage of the current political moment.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: It's not even five minutes into the first episode, and the issues facing fictional president Frank Underwood reveal an unnerving resemblance to the issues facing a certain real life commander-in-chief. First, Underwood interrupts a congressional debate on whether to investigate allegations of corruption in his administration. The president insists that Congress instead move to declare war on a terrorist group called ICO that's killed a U.S. citizen.


KEVIN SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) I am on my way to the funeral of an American patriot who was beheaded on American soil, and this chamber chooses to debate me?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) The House will suspend.

DEGGANS: Then we see Underwood speak with a crony in the Oval Office, and we realize that passionate speech was mostly about distraction.


SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) Well, you know, how the Republicans are - anything but a decision. They mistake complaint for leadership.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Well, instead of a committee to investigate you, you got one to discuss your declaration.

SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) All the way to Election Day.

DEGGANS: As this new season begins, Kevin Spacey's President Underwood is under siege. The unpopular Democrat faces an election challenge from a popular Republican governor played with smooth, steely resolve by "The Killing" alum Joel Kinnaman. Underwood's also coping with the fallout from an investigative story detailing corruption in his administration. It was written by his main journalistic nemesis, reporter Tom Hammerschmidt.


BORIS MCGIVER: (As Tom Hammerschmidt) I try to imagine what it's like inside his mind, what I would do if I were him. He has no ideology, no North Star. Isn't that the scariest thing of all?

DEGGANS: That's also true of "House Of Cards." The congressmen, senators, political advisers and candidates featured here don't indulge in the typical liberal-conservative policy debates that so often divide our real life political process. Instead, these characters are all about pursuing and acquiring power.

And this season of "House Of Cards" shines brightest when it's focused on all the maneuvering that Frank Underwood and his wife Claire, who now serves as his vice president, will do to stay in office. As Frank Underwood explains his autocratic vision in one of those classic, break-the-fourth-wall-and-talk-to-the-audience moments, it seems he could be speaking directly to some Donald Trump voters.


SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) You don't actually need me to stand for anything. You just need me to stand, to be the strong man, the man of action. It doesn't matter what I say. It doesn't matter what I do. Just as long as I'm doing something, you're happy to be along for the ride.

DEGGANS: The show features lots of nods to current political crises. Underwood cites terrorism fears to justify limiting immigration. He faces crowds of protesters who don't accept him as president, and he finds a free press his greatest obstacle as he tries to spin political setbacks. This is the first "House Of Cards" season developed without Beau Willimon, the playwright who adapted Netflix's version from a BBC miniseries. And the series doesn't miss a step most of the time.

Still, there are a couple of bold actions that Frank and Claire take late in the season that I won't detail here that feel unrealistic to the point of being silly. Those who thought that today's wild political times would make "House Of Cards" feel irrelevant will be surprised. It turns out a well-crafted drama about the quest for power in Washington is always relevant no matter who is actually sitting in the White House. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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