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Thursday, February 7, 2013
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‘House of Cards’ Merciless In Development And Bold In Delivery (Review)

By Rachel Bennett
Television Editor & Columnist

***

Promises, promises, promises.

Throughout the first season of Netflix’s political drama House of Cards, characters make promises without hesitation, from offering jobs to declaring sobriety to staying faithful. You’d think these people were the nicest to grace TV, but House of Cards isn’t about making promises — it’s about breaking them.

This is Washington D.C., after all, and no one gets ahead by playing nice.

Much like its characters, House of Cards came filled with promises, including that it would be a great series, establish Netflix as a major network and change how we watch TV.

However, unlike its players, House of Cards fulfilled expectations and could join the ranks of AMC’s Mad Men, AMC’s Breaking Bad and HBO’s The Sopranos as one of the best dramas in this golden age of television.

So why do I say “could”? Because as much as I enjoyed the series, I’m not as devoted to it as I am to Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos.

House of Cards is Netflix’s first major original series, one for which the network outbid the likes of AMC and HBO and paid a reported$100 million up front. Luckily, House of Cards has another season to completely win me over, as Netflix ordered two seasons of 13 episodes (making it a hefty $4 million per episode).

The site debuted the whole first season almost a week ago, skipping the long-held TV tradition of airing one new episode a week and instead allowing viewers to go at their own pace. Although House of Cards isn’t Netflix’s first original series (that honor goes to the overlooked Lilyhammer), it’s certainly its most anticipated. The drama is executive produced by star Kevin Spacey, director David Fincher (Se7en, The Social Network) and showrunner Beau Willimon (The Ides of March), among others, and considering the talent involved and Netflix’s investment, it quickly became a highly anticipated TV event.

House of Cards follows House Majority Whip Frank Underwood (Spacey), who methodically climbs up the Capitol Hill ladder — not sparing anyone in his path — after being looked over for Secretary of State (a job he was, yes, promised).

The series is based on the 1990 BBC program of the same name, and one of its trademarks is having Frank periodically address the audience, reinforcing the Shakespearean tragedy the drama tries to be.

Despite its ambitious goals, the show’s use of asides don’t completely work. They do make Frank more amusing and lighten the sense of constant dread, but they often try too hard to be clever. Frank’s ability to get people under his thumb stems from a cockiness, and he wants people to seek his approval — his inner dialogue shouldn’t be so desperate to win the audience’s goodwill.

The soliloquies-of-sorts also distract from an essential problem: Even though he’s the protagonist, Frank isn’t as well developed as he should be.

At times, he seems ruthless just for the sake of driving the action, and even though he talks to viewers, some of his actions don’t feel authentic or natural. I’m not against an unlikable character, but that behavior has to be earned and developed – not just thrown in to be shocking.

Sure, desperate times call for desperate measures, but we see time and time again that Frank’s the smartest guy in the room and can manipulate anyone — he shouldn’t need to resort to cheap plays. One reason the first season of ABC’s Revenge was so compelling is that the protagonist doesn’t seek to physically hurt those she despises; instead, she takes away what makes their lives worth living — making her all the scarier.

As much as I hate to admit it, the cause may also be Spacey. Whereas some critics love his performance, others find fault in it — and I’m afraid I’m in the latter camp. He seems to exist in a universe all his own, which the asides reinforce, but there are several scenes in which he’s too over-the-top. Every other actor is grounded in a sense of realism except for him, and as effectively menacing and conniving as he can be, that’s not enough when he sets a tone that clashes with everyone else.

Filling in the shoes of Lady Macbeth, Robin Wright is fantastic. She’s cold yet sympathetic and manipulative yet fragile as she supports her husband and secretly grapples with constant reminders of her mortality. It’s rare for a show to address menopause and the double standard of aging between men and women, but House of Cards does so excellently. When I tune in to season two, it will be more for Wright’s Claire than Spacey’s character.

The cast features two other standout performers: Corey Stoll and Michael Kelly. In the opening scene of the pilot, Frank says, “There are two kinds of pain: The sort of pain that makes you strong or useless pain — the sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.”

Stoll’s Congressman Peter Russo is easily the Jesse Pinkman of the series. Even though some of his actions are questionable, he has a conscience that only hurts him once he becomes a slave to Frank. His pain is genuine, especially as he’s recovering from drug and alcohol addition, and we want to see him succeed against Frank’s cold tyranny. Stoll, who stepped into the spotlight as Ernest Hemingway in 2011′s Midnight in Paris, plays his emotions so well in House of Cards that it’d be a shame if he’s looked over come awards season.

Conversely, Doug Stamper (Kelly), Frank’s right-hand man, doesn’t feel burdened by his ties to Frank. He uses them to become more powerful, and I can’t wait to see how he’ll grow come season two. Kelly’s been on the scene for a while, and I’ve seen him in bit parts here and there, but House of Cards feels like a homecoming for him — he’s excellent.

Another highlight of the first season is its style. Fincher helms the first two episodes of the season, and his cold, meticulous style reflects the fast-paced world of Washington D.C. perfectly. It sets the tone for the rest of the episodes, and such visiting directors as James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross) and Joel Schumacher (Phone Booth) effectively mimic Fincher’s direction well while leaving their own marks.

As for nominations, I expect Spacey, Wright and Stoll to be the major contenders here. Spacey may even be able to beat Bryan Cranston, who will be contending for the first half of the final season of Breaking Bad. The series should also be nominated and may win the Golden Globe and Emmy if word-of-mouth is strong enough. As seen with Showtime’s Homeland, award voters love political dramas, and House of Cards could steal some of Homeland’s thunder.

Speaking of word-of-mouth, I’d be amiss to review House of Cards without discussing the experience of its format.

Releasing the first season at once is such a risky move for Netflix, but the network is adapting to changing viewing habits and rebranding themselves by doing it.

Not only does the practice drastically alter how we’ll watch new TV in the future, but it also changes how shows are formatted. No longer do we need flashbacks or dialogue reminding us what happened in the last episode. The drama expects you to watch these episodes back-to-back, and it won’t hold your hand through the process.

The series also defies how we communicate with other viewers. TV has always been a way to bring people together, whether it be through families crowding the living room to see what’s on to people tweeting about an exciting twist. With House of Cards, you can’t discuss with anyone unless you’ve watched it with them or explicitly address how much you can talk about for fear of the dreaded spoiler.

In all honesty, this made House of Cards less enjoyable, and I can imagine it hurts the series. When a big TV event happens, discussion creates excitement, and more people want to tune in. With House of Cards, that discussion still happens, but it doesn’t occur at one time. As a result, the hype becomes diluted and weaker.

Netflix won’t be releasing ratings for the series, which is another first. There are 27 million subscribers in the U.S., and the only way we’ll know if the drama is a hit is if the site orders additional seasons beyond the first two. Through a spokesman, all Netflix will say is, “We’re happy with the great reception the show has had in the media, social media and the reviews on Netflix.com.”

Aside from other writers, I don’t know many people who’ve watched all of House of Cards. This is concerning, and the show may be too slow for some to keep watching.

Although it helps that it’s always there for viewers, that permanence could also make people apathetic. There will be no weekly reminders to tune in or previews for the next episode. It’s instead completely up to you when to watch, and there’s just so much on right now. You won’t have to worried about getting behind, so what’s the rush?

Nevertheless, this gives TV viewers a control never before seen. It’s refreshing, and whether or not it works, it’s here and will make its mark on viewing habits.

Season two begins filming in the spring, so if you haven’t watched yet, you still have about a year to catch up — what are you waiting for?

Did you check out House of Cards this week? Let me know what you thought (in other words, let’s talk about what happened — spoiler-phobes beware)!

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  • Clay

    Rachael: no nominations to be had. A big story so far is that by being on Netflix the series doesn’t qualify for Emmy or Globes consideration.

  • mst3kfan1994

    Love the review, and I find a lot to agree with. I understand the dislike of Spacey, even if I don’t quite agree with it. Finished the series recently, and I hope it does really well come nomination time (though I thought Chapter 11 might have been the real peak).

    One nitpick, but Cranston’s final episodes aren’t eligible until next year (I think he’ll only be able to submit one of the eight that aired in 2012), so Spacey won’t have to worry about officially competing against those just yet.

    • Rachel

      Thanks so much! And you’re totally right — forgot how confusing the Emmy eligibility schedule is!