Aside from being gloomy prestige dramas, "House of Cards" and "True Detective" may seem to have little in common. But their one major overlap is that they feature what might be the most controversial narrative tics on television. In "House of Cards," it's Frank Underwood's fourth-wall-busting asides to the camera, in which he drops such pearls of diabolical wisdom as "For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy." In "True Detective," it's Rust Cohle's ramblingly philosophical monologues, delivered to the general befuddlement of the detectives who are interrogating him and of HBO viewers. Both have been deemed so culturally significant that they inspired supercuts (here and here). And both have been subject to an assortment of harsh critical potshots. In the New York Times, Mike Hale described Cohle's speechifying as "long-winded exchanges about religion and responsibility that are writerly in the worst way." In The New York Post, Kyle Smith wrote of Underwood's monologues: "The technique doesn't become insufferable immediately—it takes about 15 minutes. ... You'll be longing for the comparative restraint of Howard Dean's flying-spittle ‘Yeaaaagh’ speech.” So how do these narrative devices stack up against each other? A chart to help compare:
WINNER: 'House of Cards.' Ludicrously cliched as Underwood's asides may be, they're crystal clear in meaning ("I imagine their lightly-salted faces frying in a skillet") and they sometimes nicely punctuate the plot, as when Underwood turns to the camera after Zoe's death toward the end of the first episode of season two. But Cohle's tortured-poet act is missing one key element: sense. The words he says are nicely atmospheric, but they are often resistant to parsing, which can leave them feeling like distractions from the plot rather than supplements to it. Can a weight have fish hooks? Can eternity look down on something? As with the many other mysteries of "True Detective," we may never know.