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By Chuck Barney, Contra Costa Times (TNS)

Be careful what you wish for. That old axiom is at play early on in Season 3 of House of Cards.

Fans who binge-watched the first two rounds of Netflix’s political thriller know by now that dastardly Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), with the aid of wife Claire (Robin Wright), connived and back-stabbed his way from Congress to the vice presidency to the Oval Office.

Game over? Not quite. Especially now that the dream job has become a nightmare.

As the still-gripping drama returns, Frank’s approval ratings are in the toilet. Unemployment has soared to scary heights, and a Republican-controlled Congress is thwarting him at every turn. Even leaders in his own party regard him as toxic. So much for enjoying the spoils of victory.

House of Cards has always been at its most fun when ruthless Frank and his gorgeous partner-in-slime have to extricate themselves from trouble while outwitting and outplaying their foes. But the problem, especially in a highly uneven Season 2, was that the obstacles weren’t daunting enough, and the game got too easy. If Washington, D.C., is the raging snake pit House of Cards cynically portrays it as, Frank was a boa constrictor among a bunch of puny garters.

That’s why the overwhelming pressure being felt by the president and first lady — at least in the six episodes Netflix made available for review — brings a much-needed new dynamic to the show. Frank still doesn’t have one formidable adversary going toe-to-toe with him, unless you count the thuggish Russian president played by Lars Mikkelsen. Instead, he’s being besieged on nearly every front by various rivals who smell blood, and that’s a change for the better.

It’s compelling, after all, to see Frank display levels of desperation and vulnerability we haven’t witnessed before. The arrogant man who routinely turns to the camera to brag about how he is one or two steps ahead of everybody else is now way off balance, alternately lashing out at Cabinet members and slipping into bouts of dark despair.

Of course, he still has Claire to lean on, and an intriguing scene in Episode 2 reinforces just how vital a role she plays in helping the prez retain his mojo. On the other hand, this season Claire has her own power-grabbing ambitions in mind, and it’s interesting to see how her self-interests occasionally thrust her into conflict with her husband.

There are other story lines to explore, including a resolution to Season 2’s juicy cliffhanger, but we won’t spoil any of that here. Nor will we reveal the risky — if rather obvious — scheme that Frank orchestrates in a bid to keep from being a “placeholder president.” What we can say is that House of Cards remains a slick and suspenseful — if not exactly layered and nuanced — saga that sucks you in from the start.

Then again, how much does it have left in the tank? Last season, House of Cards occasionally became an eye-rolling experience as it recklessly veered into Scandal-like silliness. It wasn’t a good look for a show that likes to see itself as an award-worthy “prestige” drama.

And now that the stakes are being raised even higher, you have to wonder if things are about to get too crazy again — and whether House of Cards should seriously consider not seeking a fourth term.

© 2015 Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Image: Netflix


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