House Of Cards: Season One Netflix Directed by David Fincher, James Foley, Joel Schumacher, Charles McDougall, Carl Franklin, Carl Franklin Starring Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, Corey Stoll, Michael Kelly, Sakina Jaffrey, Kristen Connolly, Michael Gill, Soledad O’Brien Netflix Originally Released: February 1, 2013
Although Netflix had already taken a step into original series with Lilyhammer, it is with House of Cards that they have positioned a deep (though safe, in my mind) gamble in the belief that streaming is not just the way of the future, that it is already here. And that their customer base is already aware of this. And who among our audience doesn’t agree with this?
I dare you to defy my call on this, because seriously – I’ve lost count of the amount of conversations with fellow geeks that have spoken of the hours of sleepless nights they’ve self-induced to finish a season of Doctor Who or Star Trek or The Office or The IT Crowd, or a franchise of movies. Netflix knows that their fans and followers soak up an entire season in a day or maybe two. Who the hell needs sleep anyway?
This is exactly what they’ve done with House of Cards. Releasing all the installments for the first season simultaneously is a brilliant move. And with names such as David Fincher behind the scenes of direction and production, coupled with some brilliant performances from Kevin Spacey, Kate Mara, Robin Wright, and more, they have a triumph of a series in which they have peeled away the false exterior perpetuated by the corporate-controlled mainstream media.
Some have referred to this series as the “Game of Thrones of American Politics.” And that’s an accurate microdescription of the show, but it far undervalues the overall impact that House of Cards holds. It is cut-throat, and it is honest, and quite honestly: it’s very fucking rejuvenating. But while the GOT comparisons are fair, the manipulative structure of House Of Cards mirrors elements of The Godfather and The Sopranos more than anything else, with a comparable pacing.
House Of Cards follows the master strategies of House Majority Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), part of a new administration. Before the new president, Garrett Walker (Michael Gill), is inaugurated, Underwood’s promised position as Secretary of State is pulled from under his feet. Livid at the betrayal, he begins a long term plan of vengeance through hardball political warfare – in a tale that exposes the revolting intricacies of DC politics.
There is regular breaking of the 4th wall throughout the series, with Spacey serving as his own narrator. It’s not overused, and is effective in enlightening the audience as to the use of psychology and manipulation used by many representatives – proving them to be snake oil salesmen in expensive suits. In the meantime, as Underwood’s plan unfolds into reality, he comes across all kinds of stumbling blocks – and the associated cast also has sub-plots that add up to the overall intrigue.
Yes, of course, it is fiction, and yet, while at its base, the series is a political drama with a suspenseful thriller as its heart, the methodology to House Of Cards is one that is surprisingly honest. Surrounding the political concerns that many American citizens and residents feel and face is a simple display of “entertainment value,” for at its core is a tantalizing ballet of backstabbing and complex stratagems that delve into the self-centered nature of the climb to power and riches, all under the guise of doing it all “for the American people.”
On the surface of the plot is the revealing element of Washington politics that “all words do matter.” Everything communicated in House of Cards, as it is in real life politics, matters in how it is worded and expressed. The closeness in which the press works with the politicians and vice versa is all accurate, following the relationship that is cloak and dagger, yet smoke and mirror, but also as stomach-turning as it is thrilling.
While the strategies at the core of House of Cards follow much truth in the modern day politics and journalism, there is a human component in there masked deep within much of the lying inhuman exterior. There’s a line in one of the early episodes spoken by Kevin Spacey where this resonates very strongly:
"Nobody can hear you. Nobody cares about you. Nothing will come of this."
Spacey’s character Underwood is not talking to the crazy homeless guy that’s just been arrested. He’s talking to and about you, the viewer.
House of Cards is no documentary. But in so many lines of attack, the writing and the performances truly make you feel that you are a fly on the wall of the real deal. It’s that convincing. And in that manner, it’s also enlightening: you get to see elements of the actuality of how the giant machine works. This isn’t The West Wing; this is hardball politics at its most accurate and corrupt. George Carlin once spoke about "the owners of this country" in many of his speeches and writings – House of Cards exemplifies this dramatically and indisputably.
Kevin Spacey is stirring and endearing, at the same time as being flat and detestable – he brings off all facets of the character brilliantly, giving off a holistic performance representative of all things good and bad about DC. This could conceivably be the best performance he has done to date – and while that may be a bold call, I’m sticking by it. Spacey claims your attention from the get go, from his outershell performance to the deep monologue he gives off when breaking the fourth wall.
He is, at the same time, inspirational and repugnant – the moral ambiguity flows strongly from him, and not only dominates the focal point of the series, but sets the basis for the entire universe. Spacey is a frenzied fireball of pyrotechnic appearance, in which you cannot work out whether he is a shooting star in the sky, or the meteor about to take you out.
Michael Kelly is also brilliant – and damn near unrecognizable from his more distinguished role as CJ in Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. He’s a salesman at heart, but an observant loyalist to Underwood, giving off a character that’s an amalgamation of Consigliere and Vigo.
Kristen Connolly is also an interesting addition, and somewhat of an unexpected one. As the series begins, she seems to blend in to the surroundings as Christina Gallagher, a staffer working for and in an intimate relationship with Peter Russo (Corey Stall). This initial portrayal is on purpose, as her role becomes more significant as the story progresses, but also somewhat deeper. Corey Stall’s role is impressive along with his character development, but it is in Connolly where we see some rather incredible development. Her emotional turmoil throughout is heart-wrenching at times. She is a delight in this show, and her performance is riveting.
Kate Mara is mesmerizing as Zoe Barnes, a journalist coming into the world of reporting, rooted deep into the universe of the new and dynamic social media, going loggerheads against the dinosaurs of print. Mara is surefire and assertive in this series, but also stunning and attractive as well. She becomes embroiled in Underwood’s journey as an “inner agent.” She is the face of the “media class,” and represents the orchestration amongst the news and the government. Quite literally and also symbolically she represents how in bed together politics and journalism really is, and she is an extremely convincing performer in her role. I’m dead certain her role in House Of Cards is going to be a major stepping stone to enormous future opportunities – she is brilliant!
And yet, this is an element within which the show falls down somewhat. While there are startling accuracies in how much of a circlejerk the political media complex is, there is a startling compromise in the show in the form of CNN cameos throughout. While names like Soledad O’Brien might seem weighty to add to the show, and bring a form of realism, the truth is that it just buys the series’ rights to use the CNN logo and set.
It puts into doubt the integrity of what the series is trying to dissect and examine. This, however, is the only criticism I have of the show. I suppose funding had to come from somewhere, and the product placement from the likes of CNN, Apple, and Starbucks glares out at you throughout – so much so that it takes you out of the experience.
There is some beautiful symbolism through the series highlighting the differences in social structure and rules (or lack thereof) between those in power and those not. A lot of it is fulfilled in interactions between the main characters (mainly Robin Wright as Claire Underwood, although Spacey has his share of these) and those perceived as the regular people. There’s been a meme in the mainstream media news since the economic crisis in 2008, that there’s a difference between Wall Street and Main Street. The allegory used in House of Cards, both explicit and implicit, highlights the most important difference: there’s a difference between the people of the country, and the people who run the country. Mind you, some of the figurative gestures and placements are very explicit and on the surface – so the more meaningful symbolic subtext aspects become “blink or you’ll miss” moments, so be sure to pay attention to the whole lot. In House of Cards, it is more than words that matter.
The technical side of House of Cards, superficially, seems relatively "stock". Standard camera usage that you’ve seen countless times in television series is used, though the tight close-ups of Spacey during the 4th wall monologues provide a unique flavor to the venture. It’s the lighting that stands out though, with a brilliant effort placed on how it used to strengthen specific moments.
Netflix took a gamble with this series, but it was a pretty safe wager. Names like Kevin Spacey and David Fincher carry a hell of a lot of weight. The company had taken a tentative step in the swimming pool with their other original series, Lilyhammer, but with House of Cards they have taken the dive into the deep end – and are succeeding swimmingly. The model to release ALL of the episodes at once is a stroke of genius, showing that Netflix not only know their customer base very well, but that they know with confidence that premium streaming opportunities are undeniably the vision of the future.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of this being a Netflix series is in the complete presentation of the show. The brashness, while fictional, is honest with closeness to reality. Without the overburdening of dictating sponsors and advertisers, the actors and creators are able to let the ingenious energies develop into a fresh show. Swearing and sex scenes are not restricted by archaic television standards. House of Cards is brash and in-your-face, and once you’ve experienced it, you’ll realize this is the future of serial entertainment.