'House of Cards' season 4: What's the verdict?

Story highlights

  • The fourth season of "House of Cards" was released Friday on Netflix
  • Reviewers: The new season mirrors aspects of the current presidential campaign

(CNN)One consistent criticism of Netflix's "House of Cards" has been that ruthlessly ambitious Frank and Claire Underwood have never faced a rival worthy of their underhanded, Machiavellian brilliance.

Finally, in the fourth season of this soapy political drama, they do: each other.
    That's a prevailing theme of the series' latest run, released Friday. When we left Kevin Spacey's President Underwood and his first lady Macbeth, Claire, (Robin Wright), he was locked in a tough re-election campaign and she, weary of being used for his political gain, was leaving him.
    This season continues that re-election battle -- and the Underwoods' spat -- at a time when the U.S. is embroiled in its own fractious, stranger-than-fiction presidential campaign. The show introduces some new famous faces, including Neve Campbell as a political operative, Cicely Tyson as a veteran Texas lawmaker and Ellen Burstyn as Claire's chilly mother.
    A few skeletons -- er, characters, from past seasons also reappear, although it's unclear whether they pose any real threat to the imperious Underwoods. And while Frank slugs it out alone in the primaries, Claire has decamped to her native Texas to weigh a run for an open congressional seat.
    On Twitter some fans of the show, perhaps weary of real-life politics, were eagerly awaiting the new episodes. "It's a good thing House of Cards season 4 comes out tomorrow, because I need a light-hearted escape from today's dystopian political scene," said one Thursday night.
    It's too soon to pass judgment on all of season 4, as hardcore fans were still binge-watching the show Friday morning, and Netflix made only the first six of the 13 episodes available to critics.
    But here's a sampling of some early reviews.

    President Claire Underwood?

    " 'House Of Cards' has always been a cynical gloss on power and politics, but now that we've entered the Trump Zone, it looks almost aspirational. Mister, we could use a man like Frank Underwood again," writes Scott Von Doviak for The Onion's A.V. Club.
    "It's a promising start to the season, with Claire positioned to be Frank's most formidable foe yet (not a huge accomplishment, given the ease with which he has dispatched his previous enemies). Is there any way this series doesn't end with Claire running against Frank for president?"

    Shades of Donald Trump

    " 'House of Cards' has never felt like the real presidency: Frank Underwood is evil incarnate, bumping off junior Congressmen and pushing journalists in front of trains. But now that, in real life, we're in the throes of such a bizarre presidential race, his machinations are starting to look almost viable. There are several parallels between Underwood's re-election campaign and what is currently playing out between Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders," Brian Moylan writes in the Guardian.
    "Season four of the Netflix political soap, which starts on Friday, finds Underwood angling for the Democratic nomination for president. He's running against Heather Dunbar, a determined woman who has never held elected office. She is independently wealthy and funding her own campaign with her family's money. Essentially, she is Trump and Clinton combined.
    "While ('House of Cards') contains plot points that are divorced from reality, real life is baked into the drama. Something drastic happens in the fourth episode, and it is so ludicrous that it strains credulity. But is it any more outlandish than a former tabloid fixture and reality TV host, whose idea of foreign policy is banning Muslims and building a wall along the Mexican border, taking the White House?"

    'Scandal'-like tawdriness

    "There are also several returning figures from earlier in the series, but an embargo tells me I can't mention them, even the character who appears in the opening shot of the season," Daniel Fienberg writes in The Hollywood Reporter.
    "This, then, actually represents another point of improvement, because writing about last season, I couldn't have spoiled anything if I'd tried. Significantly more happens this season, much of it absurd and contrived, but at least it's better than a total absence of on-screen incident.
    "Claire is especially active this season as she fulfills the Clintonian journey she's been on. Her entire storyline is reflective of the series' brazen ego, that nobody cares in the slightest that they're doing an arc that's virtually identical to what Mellie Grant has been doing on 'Scandal' for the past two years.
    " 'House of Cards' probably feels like it's on a higher artistic plane than 'Scandal,' when the reality is that it could almost always use a little more of 'Scandal's' Motown-enhanced tawdriness in place of its own bloodless self-denying soapiness."

    Rooting for Frank

    "Stylistically, the opening episodes posit season four as the show's most ambitious yet. ... While there is no moment to rival season two's Zoe Barnes shocker (they give it a good go), the most lingering moments subtly emerge from the script's focus on Frank's inner psyche," Jacob Stolworthy says in The Independent.
    "Until now, 'House of Cards' has centred on the character's outward expression of power -- not to mention his hunger for it -- but the writers have shrewdly stripped that back, instead focusing on the character's internal fears in a way not dissimilar from Tony's dream sequences in 'The Sopranos.'
    "You'll never root for Frank more than you do by the end of these six episodes."