Review: House of Cards

13 February, 2013
Rat Fink

So, Netflix has gotten into the series game, and I must say: Well played, Netflix. Well played.

Revamped and Americanized from the BBC original, the serial revolves around the machinations of Francis Underwood (brilliantly played by Kevin Spacey), one of the most diabolical, scheming, sadistic, hellbent-on-revenge characters one could imagine. That he is a member of the United States Congress only makes the tale more delicious.

Imagine tuning in for the pilot episode, and seeing in the opening scene the calm, dead-eyed Majority Whip outside his house, lured onto the sidewalk by the sound of a dog being hit by a car. Suddenly, and completely without any kind of forewarning, Spacey breaks the actor’s “fourth wall” and addresses the camera directly. He delivers — to your face — a quiet soliloquy about different kinds of pain, while gently strangling the suffering dog to death. Welcome to House of Cards.

The direction of the story is easy to figure out early on: Frank is beyond certain that he will receive the president’s nomination for Secretary of State. When it doesn’t happen, he makes it his life’s mission to 1) climb as high in government as he can, and 2) crush as many skulls as possible on the way up the ladder.

The supporting cast is pretty tasty as well. It’s good to see Robin Wright back at it, playing Underwood’s crafty wife. Although I have a personal aversion to Kate Mara in this show (can’t explain it, really — maybe she just does the smarmy, do-anything-and-I-mean-anything-for-a-story reporter thing too well…or maybe I just think she’s ugly), she is serviceable as Frank’s secret partner in crime. And the crimes pile up, fiends, early and often. Dirty deeds, done dirt cheap.

Frank Underwood is the kind of person you never want to allow into your personal sanctum, for he will find a weakness and exploit it to destroy you for his greater good. And yet, watching him do it over and over to both the innocent and deserving is compelling TV. The jiggle parts (while not completely graphic and certainly not overly frequent or gratuitous, it’s fine with me if they omit the secks altogether, but of course that would presumably limit its mass appeal — have we fallen so far?) are not so compelling.

It is no surprise (but quite impressive) that Netflix went after this show with great enthusiasm, out-bidding juggernaut distributors HBO and Showtime in order to secure the exclusive rights. They may be on to something.

Some critics have a problem with the “fourth wall” trick; they think it cheapens the authenticity. I disagree. Every time Spacey breaks off from the action to address the camera, I get juuuuust a bit creeped out. Like he can really see me. It adds to his overall persona; his slight imbalance, leaning ever so gently towards sociopathy — even psychosis. Which, of course, makes it all the more crazy, since the man’s influencing decisions in Congress. Whoa.

So I say (and I think RtB fiend Tom Hanks would agree) it’s a smart, interesting effort, and worth checking out. All 13 episodes of the first season are available, and have been since the get-go (another genius move on Netflix’s part). We wait a year for Season 2.

On the Rat-O-Meter scale of five cheeses, I give House of Cards:

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Suzanne
14 February, 2013 1:12 am

Ooooo we just finished up with Boardwalk Empire, maybe we will check this out!!

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Will
Will
14 February, 2013 8:26 am

The ways that Frank talk to the audience remind me of a Shakespearean soliloquy. Definitely some shades of Richard the Third in there.

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Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks
16 February, 2013 12:49 pm

I most definitely agree! Great review Fink! I particularly like this show because of its tone, which is a lot more cool and for lack of a better word, reserved. No shaky cam “tension” building, no over the top music, and all the more disconcerting for it. The style itself is kind of like a sociopath stare. Kubrickian. Frank may be the lead and should be but I found myself being actually afraid of his wife. I thought the polar ends of her humanitarian efforts and smiles and the somewhat brutal actions she takes (maybe not compared to frank) more… Read more »