This is a spoiler-free post, discussing House Of Cards through its first episode. If you want to discuss the series in total, go to the comments of this review.
“Power is a lot like real estate,” says Frank Underwood, protagonist of House of Cards, late in the series’ premiere. “It’s all about location, location, location.” That’s a fitting line to be delivered by an actor who once played Lex Luthor. Kevin Spacey isn’t playing Superman’s nemesis in this, Netflix’s second foray into original programming. Instead, he plays House Majority Whip in the United States House of Representatives. And power is not only his mind, but also on the minds of all around him. A long-time team player with his hands in seemingly every part of the political process, Underwood is passed over early in the first episode for Secretary of State, which starts the titular house of cards tumbling before viewers can even settle into their couches. But do those cards unfold in any way we haven’t already seen before?
The answer is both yes and no. It’s yes on that most surface of levels: Netflix dropped all 13 episodes at once, exploding the notion of what a “season” of television is while simultaneously making episodic reviews like this seem downright quaint. (I’ve been busy telling Netflix to get off my digital lawn all week.) The deployment of these episodes is, however, ultimately meaningless in terms of what unfolds. Call House of Cards “long-form narrative” and call it a day. If this unfolded over the course of three months, the story would be the same. The quality would still be the same. How we absorb this content will change, but putting too much stock in that aspect of the show does the program a disservice. We need to see this for what it is. And House Of Cards is, at least at the outset, an extremely well-crafted retelling of a familiar tale.
That tale isn’t the original miniseries upon which this is based, but rather the tale of modern American politics. We’ve seen variations on this tale, to be sure. But House Of Cards selects those aspects it likes, puts stars like Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in the forefront of them, and then hires David Fincher to film what unfolds. This mix-and-match approach isn’t an inherent detriment. But rather than coming at anything with a truly fresh perspective, what unfolds is an entertaining but ultimately extremely familiar retelling of backroom maneuvering, moral/legal scandal, and unchecked ambition within the corridors of national political power. If that’s your bag, there’s a ton to like here. Even if that’s not your bag, there’s still a lot to admire in these early proceedings. But mere admiration won’t push many to sit through all 13 episodes, no matter what pace at which they consume them.
Simply telling a story about Washington is all fine and well. Deconstruction isn’t the necessary name of the game here, so long as any show employing established tropes uses them to say anything new or interesting about either politics itself or our attitudes towards them. To that end, the most controversial choice made in House Of Cards is having Underwood often directly address those watching at home. Sometimes these serve as Shakespearean soliloquies. Sometimes they work as quick expositional devices. Other times they function as interjections inside onscreen conversations. On more than one occasion, Spacey employs Jim Halpert-esque eyerolls to those watching at home. But this isn’t The Office: While those eyerolls are played for laughs here, what’s left once the laughter ceases is this disquieted thought: “We are complicit in this man’s actions.”
That thought gives added heft to what’s otherwise a straightforward introduction to this world. “Straightforward” sounds like a negative word, but honestly, it’s not. Whatever you expect to unfold probably does, but there’s never a sense of flagging pace, cheap narrative shortcuts, or anything else that tingles the Spidey-senses. Spacey nearly overwhelms the first hour through his combination of screen time and charisma, but there are plenty of other characters that make their mark as well. As an ambitious journalist/blogger, Kate Mara’s Zoe Barnes mixes an “anything to get ahead” attitude with a comfortable frankness with her sexual existence. As Underwood’s wife Claire, Wright brings steeliness to a woman who shares her husband’s ambitions but also has aspirations of her own. All three are excellent in the premiere, and work well in combination with one another.
But if all this is strong, it’s also fairly unsurprising. There’s almost nothing that comes out of left-field, either, jolting the viewer out of complacency. Once Underwood sets his plan in motion, the dominoes start to fall with relative ease. (I’m avoiding the obvious metaphor here, because… well, because.) Part of why it’s so easy has to do with the backdrop of the show itself. If you look at a show like Breaking Bad, it’s fascinating to see how a monster like Walter White can infect and ultimately corrupt nearly all the good around him. But in Washington D.C.? The “good” are harder to find than bipartisan agreement on the President’s new education bill, which Underwood is tasked to push through Congress in the first 100 days of the administration. Everyone is already compromised to some extent by the time they enter Underwood’s atmosphere, which means his ability to find weak points to exploit is akin to shooting fish in a barrel. That makes ostensibly thrilling moments such as the episode’s climatic montage seem slightly less earned.
That the moment doesn’t land as powerfully as it could is a slight problem from a plotting perspective. But television (excuse me, “long-form narrative”) can survive bumps in the narrative road so long as the character work is clear and emotionally true. It’s not about seeing that the first stage in Underwood’s plan to use Barnes to undo the Walker Administration works. We need to see why this truly matters to Underwood, above and beyond mere spite at being passed over as Secretary Of State. That’s simply not enough of a reason to follow a character through the planned 26-hour run of this series. (Netflix will airdrop another 13 episodes at some point in the future.) That’s not at all to say that House Of Cards won’t deepen the characters of Underwood and others as the hours unfold. But if it prioritizes plot over people, then the audience’s involvement in this show will likewise fall apart as things move forward. Assigning a single adjective does not finish the job of creating a fully-realized character. Right now we have the wronged politician, the ambitious wife, and the desperate reporter. That’s fine for now, but will be a problem over the long haul. (If I don’t know what makes Claire truly tick sooner rather than later, I simply won’t give a shit about clear water, whether it’s in America or Africa.)
As a solid, well-executed, oftentimes gorgeously shot series, House Of Cards is a smart move for Netflix. But as a game-changing piece of storytelling, it falls somewhat short of the mark in the early goings. There’s a huge ceiling here, one that I hope gets reached as the show reaches for heights as lofty as the prose put into Spacey’s mouth. But there’s also a chance that we’ve just seen the very best this show can achieve. Fincher’s involvement ends with the second installment, and there’s no telling how much Underwood’s plan will inform the next 25 episodes of the show. Luckily, there’s so much narrative room left to fill, the show may have no choice but to fill it with less expected diversions along the way. In Representative Peter Russo, the show might have the perfect metaphor for the true show lurking under a polished façade. Russo distracts a lobbyist at one point by pretending that he’s talking to the President-Elect. In fact, he’s listening to his secretary deliver filthy words as a form of foreplay. Russo’s uncontrolled passions are a welcome respite in a show filled with people who make each decision as if playing simultaneous chess with every member of Congress. Sure, Underwood might be the current Grandmaster of the political scene at the show’s outset. But it will be more fascinating to see what happens when the show makes him sweat a little. Once these characters start getting backed into corners, we’ll truly see what they, and House Of Cards as a whole, can be.
- While I didn’t want to get into the mechanics of distribution above, it’s clear that comments for this show will be a bit of a work in progress as we move forward. The plan is right now to review one episode per week, each Friday, until we get through all 13. Since everyone will be at different levels of completion through those three months, we’ll have to figure out how best to keep those who wish to engage in discussion below unspoiled. (The link at the start of this episode will serve for those that have watched the entire series.) This should be an interesting test run for Arrested Development’s deployment later this year. For now, I’d suggest starting any thread that contains plot points from episodes beyond the one covered in the review with a spoiler warning and a clear description of what episode you’re on. And we’ll go from there.
- My current plan will be to write up each review without having seen the next one. So when I write up episode five, I will have not seen episode six. That should hopefully prevent any accidental foreshadowing in anything I review.
- Visually speaking, there’s not a lot of “obvious” Fincher going on. But the use of Sherlock-esque text message visualizations certainly stood out in an otherwise muted but well-composed directing style. My favorite sequence might have been a quick series of establishing shots within Zoe’s apartment that offer up almost everything you need to know about her current position in life. House Of Cards needs to build on that foundation, but it’s a great place to start.
- Kate Mara’s nemesis is played by Constance Zimmer, known to some as Dana Gordon on Entourage. Insert your inevitable comment about the Entourage movie featuring Spacey as Ari Gold as you feel necessary below.
- The next time I hear anyone in anything talk about how print is dead and bloggers are just THE WORST will be the time I throw something heavy at something small.
- "I never make such big decisions so long after sunset and so far from dawn." On one hand, that’s a great line. On the other, who the hell talks like that? At least everyone on Boss spoke in the same arch manner. Here, Spacey sells the hell out of it, but his unique speechifying does sometimes make it seem as if he’s in another, far more interesting show and has simply been CGI’d into this one.