House of Cards
Created by David Fincher
Starring Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright
Available exclusively on Netflix
Netflix shook the world of traditional TV up with their original programming announcements in a similar way to the way iTunes first shook up the music industry with its new paradigm for enjoying our favorite tunes. Of several projects announced by the streaming movie/TV rental company, the most high profile was House of Cards, a series headlined by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright and produced/directed by David Fincher.
The series is based on a novel and a British miniseries of the same name. Season one of the show launched on Netflix last week, giving us our first real look (other than Lillyhammer, which was a much smaller project) at the new way we can expect to consume long form scripted media.
Kevin Spacey plays Francis the Majority Whip in the United States government. In the first episode it’s revealed that he was central to getting the new Democratic President elected. He had made a deal with the new President that which fell apart right after the election. Being double crossed set Francis on a new path: he would destroy those that crossed him and claw his way to the top no matter what the cost. Francis is most definitely morally bankrupt but you can’t help but root for the guy and his wife isn’t much better, played by Robin Wright. The two of them have a relationship of love, but based on their matching goals of seeking power. She runs a nonprofit which does good work but she’s willing to do whatever is necessary to reach her own goals. It’s interesting to see how the company and the government parallel each other. They do good things but it feels like the good they do is simply a repercussion of those behind the scenes fighting for what they want personally.
You might expect the series to be some sort of social commentary on our modern times and the recent state of the government and world view. While there are those elements they take a backseat to an almost Shakespearean approach to epic stories and extreme character archetypes. Spacey often breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to us into the camera. At first this is off putting but as you settle into the formula you really get a sense of what he’s thinking, which helps since he’s such a strong gambler we might not know what his true goals are if he didn’t sometimes hint to us what he’s up too. These moments are some of the most Shakespearean of the season which is a compliment, which is a big deal from someone who doesn’t love Shakespeare. There are a few instances where it gets a little too extreme, one in a church in particular comes to mind, but overall the breaking of the fourth wall gives this series a truly modern cutting edge feel which is pretty great considering the very existence of the series is as I previously mentioned part of a whole new paradigm.
The series falls somewhere between a chess game and a giant puzzle. The only way to win is to be able to look several moves ahead and to know what pieces go where. Francis is a master at the game and watching him play it is sometimes humorous, often dramatic and melodramatic, and even suspenseful. Kevin Spacey carries this show on his shoulders and he does it effortlessly. He plays a brilliant old school southern politician who’s often a lot smarter than his peers give him credit for. Thankfully he skips the ludicrous Gone with the Wind Accent for something a lot more subtle too. Robin wright gives a subtle and nuanced performance often showing more heart than Spacey’s character until it becomes inconvenient to her end game.
What’s really surprising in these 13 episodes is that there’s very little filler. In most shows at about the halfway mark each season there’s some inconsequential story arc that just pads out the season leading to a cliffhanger season finale but not here. There is a story that seemed like it was going to be a little more filler involving a prostitute that actually ends up being much more integral to the bigger story than you might expect. The entire first 13 episodes are quite riveting with only a few minor divergences to far into melodrama. If this is an example of what we can expect from Netflix for original programming HBO needs to be quaking in their boots.