Review: “House of Cards”

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood

Welcome to the future of television.

Well, maybe. That’s a very bold statement, sure. It’s perhaps a bit of an overreach to say that the Netflix exclusive model of releasing a 13-episode season of a show on a streaming service in one big bulk post, with the clear intent for viewers to watch it over a long weekend, say, is the future of television.

A more accurate statement would be that such a model is the present of television.

Netflix and other digital distribution/streaming providers have become quite significant in the past several years, and have led to a few intriguing phenomena. I suspect that viewership of niche shows like Doctor Who and Sherlock (well, niche here in the United States – I don’t pretend to have much understanding of how they fare in their home country) has increased dramatically as a direct result – my own viewership, in fact, is a direct result of Netflix streaming in both cases. Additionally, the idea of these big pop culture phenomena that are simply too big to actually begin watching by the time one hears about them (as this recent A.V. Club piece discusses) has gradually eroded – look at Breaking Bad, a show that – five seasons in – is still gaining viewers, which for a serialized drama of its kind is very unprecedented. People are now able to load up Netflix, press Play, and sit down to a full season of these shows in an afternoon. That’s not something that was easy, or really even possible, before Netflix, and it’s contributed to the rise of these mega-popular shows like Breaking Bad. But it also creates the interesting situation in which the serialized model of distribution is fading. Most people, I’d wager, experienced Breaking Bad not over a long period of time, but in marathon sessions through Netflix. That’s how I experienced it. And the experience was fundamentally different than it would have been had I watched it week after week as it aired. There’s a shifting television paradigm, and one I’d be thrilled to discuss… but this is about House of Cards.

How does this discussion play into House of Cards? Yes, it’s really the first show to use this model. But it’s more than that. It both adheres to the traditional format of a serialized drama that The Sopronos perfected during its legendary run on HBO in the early 2000s. But it also plays to the nature of marathon viewing in a spectacular way, that makes the experience of watching House of Cards one of the most exciting I’ve had regarding television in a long while.

But let’s talk about the show itself: House of Cards is a brilliant show that, though it doesn’t contain anything breathtakingly original, is a wonderful, exemplary exercise in political thrillers that manages to exude style through its beautiful cinematography and stellar performances from an ensemble cast. We’ve seen its parts in many different places before, but we haven’t seen a sum look quite so exquisite.

Kevin Spacey plays Congressman Frank Underwood, an ambitious South Carolinian who had been promised the position of Secretary of State by the new president-elect and his chief of staff. But they screw him over royally and keep him in Congress, offering the position instead to another man, claiming that Frank could serve their interests better in Congress – specifically with regard to an education reform bill that the president-elect promised within 100 days of the administration. Underwood, ambitious but conniving and clever, agrees and smiles politely, but vows to make them regret it and rise above his position with or without their aid.

So’s the setup, and the first two episodes are all about showing us the Underwood is a ruthless politician with a stunning level of effectiveness. These episodes are directed by the incomparable and, by my money, nearly unmatched director David Fincher, who brings his typical eye for camera work to the field. Similarly, Spacey brings his A game (as usual) with a terrifyingly intimidating performance as Underwood, and with his typically overwrought profundity on display through fourth-wall-breaking monologues delivered directly to the audience, and at times with just a simple facial gesture toward the audience in a very Jim Halpert way (and usually for the same humorous effect). It’s an interesting tactic that allows Spacey to ham it up to his heart’s content at times, but maintain the appropriate fear factor when “in-character”, so to speak.

But let’s talk about what else is going on. We’ve got fellow Congressman Peter Russo, ostensibly sleazing around with his secretary (including an amusing instance of erotic conversation on the phone while Russo passed it off as a call from the president-elect) and getting swept up in drugs, alcohol, and prostitution. Underwood collects Russo and places him firmly in his own pocket, believing Russo will make a good lackey later. He makes good use of a reporter, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara, who turns in a great performance), who lucks out with a photograph of Underwood staring at her backside, by turning her blackmail attempt around on her and gaining a puppet through which he can influence the press (if you’re betting to yourself that that professional relationship turns sexual, congratulations, you’ve seen political thrillers before). Then there’s his wife (Robin Wright) and her nonprofit Clean Water Initiative, which needs money from an organization called SanCorp, which is at odds with her husband’s politics, as intimidating lobbyist Remy Danton reminds both of them.

There are, as you can tell, a lot of pieces in Underwood’s chess game, and even more that are simply pawns and too arduous to mention in detail here. And the first two episodes, which are primarily watching the first stage of Underwood’s chess game move into check, are very entertaining. But it’s the remaining eleven episodes, in which each of his pieces begins to move on their own, that really shine. Fincher’s direction of the first two set some stylistic precedents for the series that carry over for the most part, and present a unified series that feels like a single unit, while still maintaining the feel of a serialized drama. Each episode has its mini-arcs that tie into the overall season-long arc.

But in being designed to be viewed in a marathon weekend, as I viewed it, the show manages a few other exciting feats. Most notably, the randomness of the motion of the various chess pieces (an easy analogy, I admit, but since the show doesn’t feel shameful about making that analogy, neither do I) begins to slowly appear less and less random, and the mind-shattering long con at the center of this series feels genuine, not forced, and inspired, not contrived.

The series going forward, I think, will be about this idea of a long con. We’re watching Underwood build his house of cards, and though it may tremble and appear to collapse in part, I am thrilled to see in future seasons the house built in its entirety – only to then finally collapse under its own weight. This is a show that I am so excited to watch going forward, and is one of my favorite shows “on the air” right now.

Season Grade: A

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