When I first signed up for Netflix a couple of years ago, I never even thought of the possibility that they’d be having their own, original programming in just a few years’ time. Knowing the kind of company they are, with access to demographic trends in very specific ways, I guess that their service kind of demands the possibility. Recently, their first original offering House of Cards made its debut on the streaming service. Being kind of a political junkie, I was intrigued by what I’d heard about it, so I gave the first episode a try. It wasn’t long (we’re talking minutes) before I was hooked.
Developed by David Fincher and based off of the British mini-series of the same name, House of Cards tells the story of Congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey). Frank is the Majority Whip of the House of Representatives, which basically gives him license to act as the party’s “enforcer” of sorts, admonishing other party members when they do something stupid or threaten unity on a vote. Outwardly, Frank is an effective politician and a well-liked man, living in Washington, DC with his wife and maintaining a home in his district in South Carolina. Inwardly, Frank is a power-hungry opportunist with a messianic view of his place in the power structure of the American political system.
The series begins shortly before the inauguration of a freshly-elected Democratic President, Garrett Walker (played by Michael Gill). Frank had been a strategic supporter of the campaign, basically helping to get Walker enough votes to be elected due to his vast insider knowledge of the national political process, and his close relationships with the organizations that contained needed votes. Frank was under the impression that in exchange for his help in getting Walker elected, he would go on to be nominated by the new President as the next Secretary of State. When Walker’s incoming White House Chief of Staff (whom Frank got hired for the job) informs him that this is not the case, he quietly and privately snaps.
It’s then that he informs the audience that he has a plan for both retribution and ascension to greater heights of power. It’s here that the show charges ahead at full speed. We’re introduced to intrepid junior reporter Zoe Barnes (played by Kate Mara), a frustrated political correspondent at the fictional Washington Herald, where it just seems like she can’t get a break, until meeting a new informant in Spacey’s character. Michael Kelly plays Doug Stamper, Underwood’s chief of staff, who acts more like an enforcer of his boss’s political will and leverage, doing a lot of dirty work for him. Corey Stoll plays Congressman Peter Russo, a troubled young representative from Pennsylvania who allies himself with Underwood when helped with his drug and alcohol problems, and who eventually becomes a key, tragic figure in Underwood’s quest for greater power.
One of the more fascinating characters is Claire Underwood, wife of Frank, played by actress Robin Wright. Claire is a rather mysterious figure in the first few episodes of the season, but as the audience starts to get a greater impression of her, she almost seems like a more consummate (and dangerous) political figure than even her husband. Claire’s conniving self-interest, in a few episodes, even outdoes that of Frank’s. Without giving too much away, some of her behavior is downright chilling (particularly when visiting she and her husband’s former bodyguard in his hospital room).
The structure of each episode is relatively tight, and the rather expansive story told within the 13-episode season really impressed me when I finished watching it. It’s easy to get the impression in a few places that some of the writing, particularly where dialogue is concerned, can come off as hammy or trite. When delivered with such vigorousness by Kevin Spacey, though, it’s very easy to overlook some of those shortcomings. Spacey is turning in one of the best roles of his career in this show, giving Frank a vigor and harshness that truly makes the entire series.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of both the writing and Spacey’s performance was the internal monologue from Frank, where he directly addresses the audience, looking right into the camera, and giving us insight on his thoughts. It makes for an interesting device in telling a story: the action behind him keeps going, but we’re allowed into his head and his actions a bit more as they’re happening. Oddly enough, it reminded me most of the 1950’s Adventures of Superman when Clark would look at the camera and wink, only instead of that reassurance we’re given disturbing, and borderline psychopathic thoughts and feelings.
The perspective of the characters in the press is also pretty fascinating, recalling more than once the kind of intrigue and dirt found in a story like All the President’s Men. Kate Mara’s Zoe character alternates between outright hero and partial villain because of her demand early on in a partnership she forms with Underwood: “feed me.” Her appetite for any information fed to her by Underwood is ravenous, and in many ways, Frank helps her to hone her already considerable skill as a journalist in a way that, by season’s end, may bite him in the ass.
Compared with other political dramas like The West Wing, for instance, House of Cards is far more cynical, and in a lot of ways, more interesting. The close-knit relationship between money and national politics is something always discussed in the press and among people with a great amount of political apathy, and that relationship in this show is very much a character unto itself.
Early on we meet a character named Remy Danton (played by Mahershala Ali). Danton was Frank’s former chief of staff who went to work for a multinational company called Sancorp. Although in their first depicted meeting on the show things appear cordial between Frank and Remy, it’s soon revealed that this is only for the sake of outward appearances. Frank plays ball occasionally to keep corporate money coming into his coffers, but he actually doesn’t think much of Remy, nor does Remy think much of Frank. Their relationship is a reality of the political climate within the show, and is very much an allegorical representation of nearly all of Frank’s relationships: friendly on the outside, with distrust, distaste, and untruths at the center of everything.
House of Cards is a powerful statement from Netflix about what the future of TV distribution can look like, and they definitely made the release of the show all the bolder by putting out all 13 episodes at once. It’s fascinating to watch, because Frank’s plan for grabbing greater power is a long-form one. He seems to be wary of instant gratification, but as you’ll see if/when you watch it, sometimes that lack of a spur-of-the-moment attitude can lead to some cold and calculatingly deadly results. It’s kind of a shame that every episode has been released, because the wait for what comes next will be very painful considering how this first season leaves us.
It comes highly recommended. The show is engaging, both socially and culturally relevant, and operates on a very high creative level especially compared with so many other, more typical television offerings. House of Cards is now available to watch on Netflix in high definition (with the first episode currently being offered for free) to people with streaming memberships. The price of a streaming membership begins at $8 a month, and I don’t think that’s a bad price for one of the best shows (not) on TV today.
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