There's a growing sentiment, among those who write and talk about TV, that the age of the great antihero dramas might be coming to an end. According to this school of thought, the likes of shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Shield, and even Dexter (when that show was *really* on its game) have said everything interesting there is to say about protagonists who lie, cheat, steal, and often kill their way to the top of whatever mountain they're trying to get to the top of.
I don't generally agree with this line of thinking - I don't see the antihero drama as a genre unto itself, per se, so much as a realization of the fact that the main character of a TV show doesn't necessarily have to be a cop, a doctor, a lawyer, or a superhero. Main characters can be flawed, they can be complex, they can even be downright evil, as long as its in the service of good drama.
When I watch House of Cards, however, I can almost see where some of the naysayers might be coming from. Don't get me wrong - Cards is an entertaining, engrossing, and at times downright addictive show, and I enjoyed watching the second season about as much as I enjoyed the first; which is to say, a lot. This is a show built largely around the charisma of its lead, and there's no denying that Kevin Spacey is ridiculously fun to watch, as most liars, manipulators, and schemers usually are.
The thing is... Frank Underwood would make a great villain, but does he really have what it takes to be the lead character of a TV show?
The "heroes" of those other shows did more than just lie, cheat, scheme, and occasionally show a glint of humanity while doing so (as Vice President Underwood does when he learns that his wife was sexually assaulted by a business associate decades earlier, or that the proprietor of his favorite rib shack is losing his business as an indirect result of Frank's lying and scheming). Walter White didn't start out as a bad guy - we actually saw the transformation, and that was the point. Tony Soprano may have been a gangster, a thug, and a murderer from the beginning - but his panic attacks and therapy-room confessions let us in on the fact that at least a part of Tony longed to be a good man. Dexter Morgan spent the majority of his time chafing against the ways that his psychopathic nature prevented him from establishing lasting human connections.
These are all relatable, human motivations. We all want to provide for our families. We all want to be good, at least on some level. We all want to be loved.
Frank Underwood's motivation seems to be nothing more complex than pure, unadulterated, unbridled ambition. He manipulates and back-stabs his way from one rung of the political ladder to the next, seemingly for the sake of doing so. Maybe he truly believes, on some level, in the progressive ideals of his party, and wants to take the reigns of his country so he can lead it in the direction he's convinced it needs to go. Maybe he was bullied as a kid, and craves power because he never had it earlier in life, when it really counted. Maybe he's secretly a neo-Nazi, and wants to use his ever-increasing power to usher in a new Reich. I have no idea, and that's the point.
I'm not sure what I'm supposed to feel while watching this show. Am I supposed to be aghast at Frank's actions? Am I supposed to root for his downfall? There can't be any pathos in watching his fall into further depravity, because he was already well and thoroughly depraved when we first laid eyes on him. Frank is corrupt through and through; and to the extent our occasional glimpses of his humanity seem to conflict with this, 'tis all for naught, because neither the show nor Frank himself seem to acknowledge the contradiction. There's no conflict within Frank, no inner turmoil; he's more a collection of character traits, at times haphazardly thrown together, than an actual character.
I think House of Cards might be the ultimate vindication of the idea that the villain of your story can't also be the hero. The Sopranos and Breaking Bad worked because they kept pitting their (decidedly villainous) heroes against guys bigger and badder, or at least notably more despicable, than they were. Walter White, Tony Soprano, and their myriad adversaries were rarely less than evenly matched. Frank Underwood has no hero, or even a slightly less shady antihero, to match him. He's a Goliath with no David, leaving House of Cards little to be but a monument to his cleverness, and to Kevin Spacey's expertly oily charm.