A Sturdy ‘House of Cards’
The way we watch television has changed. Almost a decade ago, in order to keep up with our favorite shows, we had to either watch each episode on the exact day and time it aired or be forced to watch it rerun on another day.
While we still do that nowadays, the Internet has shifted the power to us, as we can — for most shows, anyway — stream these episodes whenever we please, so airing days and times be damned.
That said, Netflix has decided to cater to this current generation of television watchers, first with “Lilyhammer” and now “House of Cards,” of which all 13 episodes of its first season premiered on Feb. 1. An adaptation of the BBC miniseries of the same name, the political thriller series doesn’t break new ground, but is well crafted and quite sinfully enjoyable.
Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), an ambitious Democratic congressman and the House Majority Whip, expects to be nominated as Secretary of State for the newly elected President when he is informed that the President will not be fulfilling that promise. Livid and supported by his equally ruthless wife Claire (Robin Wright), he engineers a covert political war against the administration, using fellow Congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) and young reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) as his unwitting pawns.
Though the series focuses mainly on Frank, its arc also covers the doings of Claire, Russo and Barnes. Of these four resulting storylines, Frank and Barnes’ are the most compelling and fascinating, as Frank navigates his plans through the political realm and Barnes’ role at Washington Herald becomes increasingly significant as she receives insider information from Frank.
Claire’s activities complement Frank well, and show some exceptional punches from time to time, but isn’t buoyed quite strongly enough and feels almost like an add-on. Ditto for Russo, who goes about doing Frank’s bidding while wrestling with personal, moral dilemmas of his own.
However, each of the characters’ storylines boasts of some quality writing. The dialogue in particular stands out quite nicely, with the best lines often going to Frank, who provides cynical — if not humorous — asides meant for only us to hear. Yes, a bit of credibility is stretched due to a couple of characters acting or thinking like (as we would perceive them to be) idiots, but the story itself is able to progress with admirable confidence.
The cast, for the most part, does a terrific job in playing their characters. Spacey, speaking in a condescending Southern drawl, is absolutely fantastic as the power-hungry, Machiavellian congressman; Frank is required to put on many faces to make his plans work, and Spacey convincingly nails all of them.
With her frosty exterior, Wright channels Lady Macbeth and subsequently commands her scenes very well, often being head and shoulders above her co-stars. Stoll manages to bring a degree of emotional depth to the sleazy Russo, and Mara effectively communicates Barnes’ determination to be more than just a small-name reporter.
Appropriately and exquisitely casting Washington, D.C. in dark, somber colors, the series is certainly in assured hands. The production team assertively manipulates lighting for the camera to capture some splendid imagery, and established directors like David Fincher (who helmed the first two episodes) seamlessly incorporate their styles while maintaining a look and feel that is consistent with other episodes.
With “House of Cards,” Netflix flexes its muscles as a program developer and proves to be a force to be reckoned with for the future. Its unusual decision to release all the episodes at once will nonetheless spark, if not build, interest in the series, which it truly deserves, considering the fine work that has gone into it. Now, we can only wonder how that fourth season of “Arrested Development” will turn out.
Recommended: Kevin Spacey’s performance in “House of Cards” makes this Netflix-exclusive series worth watching. The entire first season is available online.