Thursday, February 14, 2013

House of Cards

I'm a sucker for innovation, especially in the light of how quickly our world is changing.

A number of established mediums are slowly dying off, or being absorbed into others. Print journalism is mostly dead, as an online presence is essential to surviving in this web-based world of ours. Physical album sales continue to drop as - for better or worse - online piracy and services like iTunes and Spotify force record companies and artists to deliver their material in those channels. Last but certainly not least, broadcast television is starting to take a hit as Netflix and Hulu give people a viable option other than the outmoded "cable bundles." Because who can do without 100 music channels spanning basically ten genres, right?

I have little respect for companies or industries that refuse to evolve with the times; conversely I have a great deal of respect for those that can use the changing media landscape to their advantage. So with the prevalence of Netflix, it was only a matter of time before their original programming started beefing up and with House of Cards, I think it's safe to say Netflix has successfully earned a spot among the TV big-wigs like Showtime and HBO.

This debut 13-episode season relates the story of Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), a ruthless and cunning politician who is passed over for the position of Secretary of State in the opening moments of the show. Slighted, Underwood launches a sprawling scheme to exact revenge on those who betrayed him. By his side, and just as ruthless, is his wife Claire (Robin Wright) - who acts as both pawn and player in her husband's machinations. Hungry for an inside source on Capitol Hill, ambitious journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) cozies up to Underwood - who in turn uses her desire for exclusive stories to wag the dog throughout his various and sundry dealings. A myriad of characters populate the series to varying degrees, but the heart of the story revolves around the clearly villainous but undeniably compelling Underwood; and it's every bit as good as it sounds.


I've been eagerly anticipating the release of House of Cards for a few reasons, but chief among them was the hope that it would further legitimize web-based television. Rather than being stuck having to sit through commercials or chained to a once-a-week dose of my favorite show, I relish the idea of audiences being given a choice in how we enjoy our entertainment. Want to stage a weekly House of Cards night with your friends on an evening of your choosing? Knock yourself out. Want to watch 2 and 3 episodes at a time with a tuna sandwich for dinner? Feel free. Maybe mainline the entire show in an epic 13-hour plus marathon so that you can go to bed with visions of political corruption (but mostly Kate Mara) dancing in your head? Go nuts, buddy.

So House of Cards had me at hello conceptually, plus it actually looked like a well-written and compelling drama. So I have been elated to find that it has exceeded all my expectations.

By the way - I'm not familiar with the book or the early-90s BBC adaptation from which the series is inspired, so I can't really comment on how they compare. Just so ya know.

First things first; Kevin Spacey is an actor who has long since established himself as capable and compelling; his turn as Francis Underwood is another solid notch on the bedpost. One of the first things you'll notice about the show is that he often breaks the fourth wall and addresses the camera directly - filling us in on little thoughts and expositional material throughout each episode. It's jarring at first, and I wasn't entirely sure of it in the early moments of the first episode. But as the pieces of the narrative come together, I found myself enjoying these moments almost more than the rest of the show. It's used as much for darkly comedic effect as it is for exposition, and helps to make Underwood that much more of an engaging character. Moreover Underwood is a curiously compelling character, considering he's so clearly villainous. I often found myself rooting for him out of sheer admiration for the scope and profundity of his plans. Underwood is one of the most deliciously Machiavellian characters I've ever had the pleasure to watch.

Practically all of the supporting cast turn in top-of-their-game performances, and I'm at a complete loss as to favorites. After Francis himself, though, I would have to say that Robin Wright's performances as Claire is equally captivating. Like her husband, Claire is a calculating and ambitious character whose marriage is as much about achieving her own personal goals as anything else. As if Underwood's asides to the audience weren't Shakespearean enough, Francis and Claire put me in mind of a kind of MacBeth and Lady MacBeth dynamic early on in the series. It's not a one-to-one comparison, but I found it utterly fascinating to watch two characters who were both so undeniably corrupt on a number of levels maintain a loving yet realistic marriage.

Kate Mara's Zoe is perfectly suited to the actress's personal appearance, as her somewhat mousy features trick characters and the audience alike into underestimating her early on. My celebrity crush on both Mara sisters aside, Zoe's subtleties as a character don't really start influencing the principle action until later on in the season. Even after a full season of this show, I'm wary of Zoe in a way I wasn't at first, and I'm curious to see if she's been hiding things from the other characters and the audience all this time. I have my suspicions, and I love that the show is taking its time unfolding its many twists and turns.

While the performances help ground the series, its really in the writing and direction where House of Cards flexes its muscles. Political thrillers can easily become either too blatant or too labyrinthine, but House of Cards does a magnificent job of balancing exposition and intrigue. There's all kinds of mystery and numerous layers to each episode, but the show manages to keep all of its conflicts in focus throughout. Characterizations are strong, but the pacing aids cohesion as well. We spend just enough time with various moments to fully grasp what's going on, but rarely do we dawdle. It's an impressive accomplishment given how many characters the show boasts and how well each of their motivations are outlined. And being a largely character-driven piece, it's astounding at how quickly everything clips along - thoroughly covering a great deal of ground each episode.

House of Cards also showcases some superior direction. As I've mentioned before, David Fincher is one of my favorite directors. Having helmed the first two episodes of the show, Fincher brilliantly constructs the blueprint for the 11 episodes that come after. Even scenes in the middle of the day are darkly lit, there's often a shallow focus to much of the camerawork, and the ominous quality to the entire combination reminds us that dark deeds are afoot. On top of that the names of the various directors who steer the proceeding episodes are ones readily recognizable from drama and television - like Joel Schumacher, James Foley, and Allen Coulter.

And while this show would hardly substitute for a formal lesson in Civics and Government, it brilliantly demonstrates the kinds of conflicts of interest and subterfuge that dictate much of American politics. Fictional situations and names are employed, of course, but House of Cards provides viewers with fantastic illustrations regarding - for example - the danger of corporate lobbying and how interpersonal networking all-too-often trumps democratic process.


Honestly  I didn't find too much to be displeased with.

The show does occasionally falter with dialogue; particularly with Spacey's. Once or twice I felt as though Underwood's use of cliched expressions felt inconsistent with his character's cold-blooded brilliance. But even then, Spacey's complete commitment to his character elevates these weaker lines.

There were one or two subplots that I found slightly inconsistent at first, but my misgivings were laid to rest after the season concluded and character conflicts were resolved, one way or another.

House of Cards is a distinctly adult show; there's language, drugs and alcohol, nudity, the works. Personally, this has never been a problem for me, but for more sensitive viewers this may prove a deterrent. Again, this show could easily stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any of the "Premium Cable" programming from HBO or Showtime - so you can expect a requisite approach to content.


House of Cards is easily one of my new favorites, and a formidable accomplishment on multiple levels. In a world where most television networks are entrenched in broadcast prime-time traditions and often won't release full seasons of their shows to Netflix or Hulu, I'm excited by how strong Netflix's first major foray into original programming has turned out to be.

Broadcast television hasn't died yet, and likely won't completely for some time. But this show has proven that television as we've known it has never been closer to obsolescence; and, fortunately, that's a very good thing.

When Tron first released in 1982, it was disqualified from winning any Oscars on the grounds that the film makers had "cheated" by using computers for their special effects. In a similar fashion, it wouldn't surprise me to see the Emmys balk at including House of Cards in its nominee pool at first. But, just as CGI has come to define visual effects, I firmly believe streaming services like Netflix will come to define what we collectively call television; and if House of Cards is any indication - it's going to be a change for the better.

I can't wait for Season 2.

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