TV Review: ‘House of Cards’ (2013)

House of Cards Netflix Review
Photo: NetFlix

I had no idea going into the new Netflix original series “House of Cards” it was only the first season. I assumed, since the BBC original it was based on was only twelve episodes long, and the fact it was based on Michael Dobbs‘ 1989 novel, a 13-episode arc would cover the entirety of the story. So, as the minutes ticked away in the final episode I kept thinking to myself, “How are they going to wrap this up in the next ten… nine… eight… seven minutes?” The answer, obviously, is they didn’t and I’d be lying if the result wasn’t a bit of a letdown as the drama in the latter moments wasn’t as intriguing as the political back-stabbing that led up to it, but the overall enjoyment level was quite high regardless.

Involving the dirty dealings of backroom politics, the series was developed by playwright Beau Willimon (“The Ides of March”) with David Fincher aboard as one of the show’s producers and director of the first two episodes. A big name cast and a slew of name directors following in Fincher’s wake — including James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross), Joel Schumacher (Phone Booth), Charles McDougall (“Queer as Folk”), Allen Coulter (“Boardwalk Empire”) and Carl Franklin (Out of Time) — have turned “House of Cards” into something of a must-see event and with Netflix releasing all thirteen, first season episodes at once it’s pretty tough not to power through them all at once.

Playing right into Fincher’s wheelhouse, it’s easy to notice what attracted him to the material in the first place. For the man known for the gruesome, down-in-the-dirt violence of films such as Seven, Fight Club and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, politics are dealt here with just as nasty an edge as any punch thrown or slice of a razor.

Kevin Spacey stars as Frank Underwood, a South Carolina congressman and House Majority Whip. Frank has just been passed over for Secretary of State when he was led to believe the position was his. This proves to be the catalyst for a lengthy process of revenge and power positioning. Within minutes it’s quite obvious Frank is not someone you want on your bad side.

Using anyone he can to his advantage, Frank will work the system and the press to get what he wants as the dirtier side of politics comes up roses once you see just how dirty Frank is willing to get.

There are very few likable people to be found in the entirety of this show with Kristen Connolly‘s character, a secretary for U.S. Representative Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), being one of the few I feel I can’t point to as someone you could actually come close to admiring.

Everyone is out for themselves including Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes, an “I’ll do anything for a story” journalist for the Washington Herald who soon finds herself working for the highly trafficked political website Zoe’s role in the story feels a lot like the character Rachel McAdams played in State of Play, a go-go blogger, embracing social media who soon finds herself in too deep, but the depths of her drive go down much darker holes.

Then there’s the aforementioned Peter Russo with Corey Stoll taking advantage of the limelight and coming out one of the two acting highlights of this first season. Stoll knocked us out with his loud and likable performance as Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and here he’s walking a path filled with drugs, hookers and drink. Obviously once this information comes to Underwood’s attention he realizes he has a new card to play.

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of CardsWhile Stoll is great and Spacey is just as good as you’d expect, the knockout of the acting lot is Robin Wright as Underwood’s driven and loyal wife, Claire. Her hair cropped short and a steely gaze looking beyond her black mascara, Wright owns this role, delivering a performance that should have casting agents running to get her in their next feature film.

The relationship between Claire and Frank is one unlike any I can remember in recent television or cinematic history. Certainly some of their actions have been seen, but in the way they live with and treat one another is as sickening as it is infectiously entertaining. You could probably argue with someone for hours over whether or not they even love one another and inside that argument — I’d put money on it — you will eventually contradict yourself.

“House of Cards” is snarling and nasty and it feels every bit like a Fincher project as cinematographers Eigil Bryld and Tim Ives have captured the same style of soft lighting, monochromatic polish and smooth camera movements Jeff Cronenweth employed in both The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. From a visual perspective, in fact, it’s one of the most beautiful television productions I’ve seen, though the editing in some of the latter episodes is a bit sloppy as narratives told in two different locations begin stepping all over each other.

One risky, but successful, decision was to have Spacey’s Underwood break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. A moment where he says, “I fucking hate children,” and stares into the camera unsure if we know he’s finished or not floored me as much as the moment where he visits Russo’s house and sees a game console on the coffee table and asks, “Is that a PS Vita?” His excitement over it is palpable as we occasionally see him at home, unwinding playing a little PlayStation 3 in-between moments of destroying the political careers of those in his way.

The show feels a lot like “The West Wing”, but only if “The West Wing” was dipped in acid and all potential character charm was stripped away. Boasting a $100 million production budget, Netflix has certainly shown some guts in premiering such a tonally dark series as their first foray into original programming. The online media giant does have a new season of “Arrested Development” in the works for later this year, which shows they aren’t settling for broad, general audience kind of works, instead offering something for the more cerebral viewer, willing to stick it out for several episodes before coming down with a final verdict.

That said, anyone willing to give “House of Cards” a chance will find it rewarding even if you feel you need to scrub yourself clean after you’re done watching. I do, however, have some advice…

All 13 first season episodes are being released at once in an unprecedented attempt to cater to society’s idea of binge television consumption. Your instinct will be to do just that, and I can’t blame you, but just be prepared for an excellent production that makes the defiled political process Willimon put on display in Ides of March look like child’s play compared to the lengths Frank Underwood is willing to go. Oh, and also realize this is just a first season and you won’t be getting things wrapped up in a nice bow by the end.

The big question now is to wonder how Netflix will determine the show’s success? Is it by how many new subscribers come sign up? Can’t people just sign up for a free, one month trial subscription, watch the show and bail? How will they handle the DVD and Blu-ray release? Will they remain exclusive? “House of Cards” signals interesting territory for the future of the medium as it poses direct competition to the bundled packaging of cable. Whether it will payoff or prove successful is unlikely to be known for a year or more.

You can find the show on Netflix right here.

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