Feb 26, 2015 · 5 minutes

Most would agree that Netflix's wildly popular series House of Cards -- which premieres its third season at 3:00 AM tomorrow, Eastern Time -- has garnered enough praise and accolades to be considered one of the greatest shows on "television."

And yet it doesn't fit comfortably into the modern canon of great TV. It's a smart political drama, but not half as smart -- or funny -- as The West Wing. With its almost-comically intricate machinations carried out by power-hungry characters, its closest contemporary is Game of Thrones -- but that show is sexier, bloodier, and more thrilling by a mile. It lacks the pseudo-realism of The Wire and the suffocatingly airtight storytelling of Breaking Bad, nor are its characters as filled with subtle complexities as the ones in Mad Men. Even as a cynical commentary on the hopelessness of American power structures, the show has nothing on The Sopranos.

So beyond the reason we consume all television -- which is to desperately distract ourselves just long enough to stave off panic over how life didn't turn out like we'd planned -- why do we watch House of Cards?

When compared to other beloved television shows like the ones listed above, House of Cards isn't exactly best-in-class in any specific category; instead, it does many things very well. The dialogue, for example, may not be the stuff of Shakespeare, but it flows past as naturally as a breeze -- albeit one that brings with it a nasty chill. As such, the show's clever, quick-witted characters are a perverse joy for audiences to spend time with.

The characters don't, however, possess a great deal of depth. Zoe Barnes, Peter Russo, Raymond Tusk, and the rest are usually driven by a single overarching ambition -- fame, power, money, love -- while manifesting a single overarching weakness -- addiction, philandering, a conscience. These simple motivations, which are hardly the stuff of great character dramas, are only in place to make it easier for Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood to manipulate his colleagues into clearing the path for his ascent. Therefore, most of the characters lack the contradictions of real human beings. And while it sounds cliche to call them pawns in Underwood's political chess match, they are written precisely to this purpose.

That may sound like a major failing of the show. But unlike, say, Mad MenHouse of Cards is not about the human condition. Or, rather, its facile observations about the human condition are not sufficiently profound to merit the affection viewers and critics feel toward the show. So if it's not about characters, and it's not about the human condition, and there are other shows that paint more intelligent or realistic portraits of political power in America, what is the point of House of Cards? Is it merely a well-shot, scandalously entertaining time-waster? Or is it something more?

To answer that question, it's helpful to place House of Cards in the context of executive producer David Fincher's body of work. Fincher's greatest achievement -- with apologies to Social Network, Fight Club, and Gone Girl -- is the criminally-underseen serial killer drama Zodiac. In that film, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) spends upwards of three hours obsessively collecting and making sense of disparate pieces of evidence. Like all great mysteries, the power of the narrative lies not in Whodunnit, but rather in the puzzle-solving process itself; the filtering-out of inessential or misleading clues and the drawing of connections between seemingly unrelated atomic bits of information. This process is made all the more challenging as Graysmith watches his body of evidence become degraded and disfigured before his eyes by bureaucratic institutions like the media and law enforcement. Enamored by process and information theory, but aware of the limitations placed on these processes by the messiness of real-life, Zodiac is the greatest procedural drama in the history of cinema.

What does that have to do with House of Cards? The only mystery the show ever poses is, "How on Earth will Frank get himself out of this latest jam?" -- a question whose outcome, if not the mechanism, is always the same.

But like ZodiacHouse of Cards is also fixated on process and puzzle-solving. The chief difference is that in House of Cards the flaws in bureaucratic and journalistic procedures -- which exist largely because of the flaws in those broadly-drawn characters who carry them out -- are not obstacles like they are to Robert Graysmith. They are opportunities for Underwood to manipulate the system to his benefit. In this way, House of Cards is Zodiac's small screen counterpart. It's the greatest procedural on television, but it achieves this stature by subverting rather than embracing the tropes of the genre. It's like the dark twin to every detective story. Underwood is as cunning in the art of deduction and ratiocination as Sherlock Holmes, but his power-hungry ambitions and willingness to destroy everyone in his path makes him more akin to Holmes' nemesis Moriarty.

Whether or not that merits House of Cards inclusion in the modern television canon is an open question. Maybe the show's obsession with problem-solving makes it little more than a self-indulgent exercise -- the television equivalent of watching somebody do a crossword puzzle. And just as many viewers lost interest in the BBC's Sherlock reboot when the protagonist's brilliance began to stretch -- then lay waste to -- the boundaries of reality, Underwood's machinations have also become increasingly fantastical. (My guess is that the writers will address this problem by bringing a much-needed dose of fallibility to Underwood's schemes in Season Three. After all, now that he's ascended to the highest position of power, there's nowhere to go but down).

But even if the show is over-the-top -- and boy, is it ever -- House of Cards is a powerful statement on how the institutional safeguards and checks that exist to stave off corruption in America are worthless when matched against a brilliant mind -- one that keenly understands the weaknesses of even the best-designed procedures and also the weaknesses of the human beings elected to carry them out.

Will you be up at 3 AM when the third season of House of Cards premieres tonight? I will. Join me here and on Twitter as I recap each episode.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]