TV Review: House of Cards
We are living in a golden age of television, specifically of drama television series. The rise of cable and premium channels has allowed creators to present their visions for series with less oversight from networks and advertisers. These shows are made with fewer strictures; rules like ease of entry and stable status quo that make things easy to sell in syndication don’t matter as much. But now Netflix has taken things a step further, with original programming produced by them, for them, a TV show that never airs on TV. They have new Arrested Development episodes in the pipeline and a couple more prospects after that, but they opened with House of Cards, a gripping, visually stunning adaptation of the U.K. series of the same name.
House of Cards follows Majority Whip Francis “Frank” Underwood (D-South Carolina) (Kevin Spacey), who has had a long, successful career in the House and was promised Secretary of State in the new Presidential administration. As the show opens, he’s informed that circumstances have changed, and the job will go to someone else. Underwood doesn’t like that one bit, and proceeds to bribe, blackmail and manipulate everyone he needs to in order to get what he wants. His willing and unwilling allies include his equally calculating wife, Claire (Robin Wright), hungry young reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), alcoholic Pennsylvania rep Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), and coldly sadistic assistant Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly).
The entire cast, from major players to one-off characters, shines, but Kevin Spacey’s performance is one for the record books. He affects an air of refinement and Southern hospitality, but drops it immediately and utterly in favor of either cold inhumanity or explosive rage. Underwood is the latest in a long line of prestige format drama anti-heroes, going back through Walter White and Don Draper to Tony Soprano. He’s yet another facet of our culture’s obsession with good- or at least appealing- people doing very bad things. Even a character as base as Dexter Morgan taps into this drive, this fantasy. But Underwood is different. There’s no righteous violence or lascivious sex (although there’s plenty of sex) to escape to here. The fantasy is one of power, explicitly. Power over other people. It’s a dark, twisted reflection of The West Wing: while on that show, characters inspired each other to rise to the occasion for the good of the nation, here Underwood tears and beats people down until they’re putty to build his own sphere of influence.
The show is slick and clean and pretty to look at, a marvel of cinematography and editing. David Fincher directed a couple of early episodes and serves as one of the show’s executive producers. The core device, though, that makes it so engaging is an unexpected one. Underwood regularly addresses the audience in non-diagetic monologues and asides. Breaking the fourth wall isn’t new. Shakespeare famously had Puck deliver the epilogue to A Midsummer Night’s Dream that way. But for the most part, it’s been reserved for goofy, young leads in things like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Saved by the Bell. Frank Underwood is neither of those things. His asides, although often humorous, are a glimpse behind the curtain at the evil person he really is. They’re the moments we get to know his thoughts, on a level even his closest, most trusted allies can’t. It also creates an inescapable sense of complicity in Underwood’s machinations. Merely by watching the show, we’re implicated in this corruption and subterfuge. No one’s hands are clean.
My only complaints with the series are with the format and release schedule of it. House of Cards was posted in its entirety on Netflix Instant Watch on February 1st. They company explained that so much of their audience watches whole seasons in only a few sittings that it made sense. A couple of my issues are comparatively petty; it’s much harder to avoid spoilers (especially when, say, you’re researching for a review), and a lot of my friends finished it before I did. But some of the pacing and tone issues of the show make it seem like it was still written with weekly airings over the span of a half a year or more in mind. It’s often difficult to gauge the passage of time between episodes, especially since it can vary quite a bit from one to another. I also feel like some of the “cliffhangers” or emotional beats of the show were dampened by the immediate availability of the next episode, and thus the resolution. But a lot of it just kind of revolves around the fact that the show is very, very dark. As engaging and addicting as it is, it’s a lot of unpleasant stuff to watch. If you’re watching House of Cards over a weekend, prepare for a pretty bleak Monday morning.
But these complaints are more to do with the difficulties of adapting to new formats than with the show itself. Obviously this doesn’t carry much weight at the beginning of February, but House of Cards is the best show of the year, and the show I’ve been most excited about since Game of Thrones. If you like Breaking Bad, if you like The West Wing, if you like anti-heroes and cool cinematography and good television in general, I urge you to check it out. The entire 13 episode first season of House of Cards is available exclusively on Netflix.