Tuned In: 'House of Cards' returns on Netflix

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Netflix's "House of Cards" garnered a lot of attention out of the gate last year because it was the first streaming series to equal in style and presentation the type of scripted dramas on HBO and AMC. "House of Cards" had a respected pedigree in star Kevin Spacey and the original British miniseries it was based on.

But through its first season (season one SPOILER ALERT for the next couple of paragraphs), "House of Cards" proved to be somewhat less than the sum of its parts. That's not to say it's a bad show, just not quite as groundbreaking, beyond its then-unique delivery system, as it first appeared.

The show did not lose me when Congressman Francis "Frank" Underwood (Mr. Spacey) turned into a murderer -- although that, too, was a bit much -- but did when the vice president of the United States quit his job to run for governor of Pennsylvania again. Say what you will about the prestige or lack thereof of the vice presidency, but that particular plot twist was just too unbelievable. Up to that point, "House of Cards" operated in a heightened but generally realistic universe; with that plot turn the show devolved into a melodramatic soap opera. Again, nothing wrong with that; it's just not as respectable as a realistic soap opera.

(The too-long, aimless plot about Frank's wife, Claire, and her dalliance with a New York artist also undercut the strength of the character so well played by a perma-frosty Robin Wright.)

Season two picks up right where season one ended as Frank and Claire continue their jog home, and Frank begins to sweat the details that reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) might uncover about his role in the death of Congressman Peter Russo.

"Let's start this chapter with a clean slate," Frank tells Zoe. As usual, Frank finds a way to get what he wants.

Meanwhile, vicious Claire prepares to ascend to her new job as wife of the vice president. So she threatens a pregnant former underling at the Clean Water Initiative whose health insurance she cut off, separating her from a life-sustaining drug. ("I'm willing to let your child wither and die inside of you," Claire says.)

Written by executive producer Beau Willimon, the season two premiere -- debuting today on Netflix along with the 12 other episodes that comprise the second season -- offers no reminders of season one. The episode just dives back into the fast-moving plot, which may take some forgetful viewers a little time to catch up.

New stories kick off, too, including Frank's efforts to install his own successor as House majority whip through his usual manipulative machinations.

Molly Parker plays Frank's hand-picked replacement, and at first her character seems like a convenient, controllable choice. But episode by episode, she begins to emerge as a power broker in her own right who might someday be capable of turning on Frank.

Mr. Willimon does not rest on his laurels, getting Frank installed as VP in episode two ("Not the most inspiring choice for a vice president," opines Rachel Maddow), but he does pull back on the amount of Frank's direct address to the camera. It's almost absent from the premiere until a funny moment toward the episode's end that allows Frank to comment on some viewers' dislike of the device.

HLN's new direction

On Monday, cable's HLN added the syndicated show "Right This Minute" at 10 p.m., airing Monday through Thursday. The show also airs at 3 a.m. on WPXI and features Steven Fabian Lisowski, a 2002 Plum High School grad who goes by Steven Fabian on TV, among its hosts.

The move is part of HLN's makeover that seeks to position it as "the first TV home for the social media generation" with stories "ripped from the most plugged-in sites and blogs" as HLN forsakes news judgment for trending news and viral events. And, yes, that does sound like a further dumbing down of TV news.

'Army Wives' salute

Lifetime's promised "Army Wives" look back special will finally air at 9 p.m. March 16. The two-hour program features interviews with cast members and producers who reminisce about their experience making the network's longest-running scripted series, which was canceled last year.


Fox canceled "The X Factor" late last Friday after three seasons; judge Simon Cowell is returning to the British "X Factor."

TNT canceled its noir drama "Mob City" after a three-week, six-hour first season aired in December.

CNN canceled "AC360 Later."

The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that Lifetime's "Drop Dead Diva," canceled and revived once already, will conclude its run (presumably for good this time) after the upcoming sixth season that debuts at 9 p.m. March 23.

On Thursday The CW gave early renewals to "Arrow," "The Vampire Diaries," "Supernatural" and freshman dramas "The Originals" and "Reign" for the 2014-15 TV season.

TNT ordered an additional six episodes of the docuseries "Cold Justice."

Adult Swim renewed "Rick and Morty" for a second season.

Netflix has picked up a final season of former Cartoon Network series "Star Wars: The Clone Wars." Dubbed "The Lost Missions," 13 episodes will debut on the streaming service on March 7.

Channel surfing

At long last, "The Wonder Years: The Complete Series" will come to DVD with most of its music intact when StarVista Entertainment releases the show in the second half of 2014. ... NBC.com will debut shorter, online episodes of "Chicago Fire" (already posted), "Grimm" (online today), "Parks and Recreation" (Feb. 20) and "Parenthood" (already posted), which includes crossover appearances by two characters (Landry Clarke and Billy Riggins) from "Friday Night Lights." ... Jay Leno ended his "Tonight Show" era with 14.6 million viewers tuning in for his last telecast, the show's biggest audience since the night of the "Seinfeld" finale in May 1998; the final "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" drew 6.6 million viewers, the biggest audience for the show since David Letterman's final episode in 1993. ... AMC's midseason premiere of "The Walking Dead" outperformed NBC's Olympics coverage Sunday night among viewers 18-49. ... Incoming NBC "Late Night" host Seth Meyers surprises a bride on the season 11 premiere of TLC's "Say Yes to the Dress" (9 p.m. Feb. 21). ... Fred Armisen ("Portlandia," "Saturday Night Live") has been named bandleader for "Late Night With Seth Meyers." ... HBO's "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver" will premiere at 11 p.m. April 27 with the former "Daily Show" correspondent offering a satirical look back at the week in news. ... Former CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo debuts her new show, "Opening Bell," at 9 a.m. Feb. 24 on Fox Business Network. ... FX viewers take note: "Archer" and "Chozen" are on a two-week hiatus for the Olympics, returning the week of Feb. 24. "Justified" took a one-week hiatus and returns Wednesday. ... TLC's "The Little Couple," starring former Pittsburgher Jen Arnold, returns for a new season at 10 p.m. March 4. ... "Ralph Kiner: Pittsburgh's Home Run Hero" will air Saturday on PCNC at 7 p.m. with encores on Monday and Tuesday at 9 p.m.

Tuned In online

Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Castle," "Breaking Bad" and "Shipping Wars." This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood," "The Walking Dead," "Dance Moms" and "Top Chef Estrellas." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.

This week's podcast includes conversation about "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," "True Detective" and "Community." Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.

TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.

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