House of Cards, 1.1-1.6: Charismatic leads, style make up for familiar story

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House of Cards promo pic2

House of Cards, Season 1, Episodes 1-2: “Chapter 1”, “Chapter 2”
Written by Beau Willimon
Directed by David Fincher

Season 1, Episodes 3-4: “Chapter 3”, “Chapter 4”
Written by Keith Huff (“Chapter 3”), Rick Cleveland (“Chapter 4”), and Beau Willimon (both)
Directed by James Foley

Season 1, Episode 5: “Chapter 5”, “Chapter 6”
Written by Sarah Treem (“Chapter 5”), Sam Forman (“Chapter 6”)
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Premiered Friday, Feb. 1st on Netflix

House of Cards is a bold venture, to say the least. Netflix’s first sole foray into television, a remake of a 1990 BBC miniseries, the series came with a hefty price tag and a high profile, with David Fincher on board as a first-time television director. No one can know what the future holds for streaming television, but for Netflix, and House of Cards, it certainly looks rosy.

Set in the upper echelons of Washington politics, the series tells a familiar story of manipulation, scheming, and back-room deals as a proud Congressman who feels wronged seeks revenge against those who snubbed him. Kevin Spacy, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, and a strong ensemble cast ground the series in character, selling the specifics and helping the audience overlook those elements that they might have seen before.

Spacey and Wright in particular are great as the central couple, Frank and Claire Underwood. They’re complex, ruthless, and ceaselessly ambitious. They’re also incredibly charismatic. Spacey is great as the Congressman, but he’s playing a character we’ve seen. More surprising is Wright’s wife and charity runner. Her measured stoicism and calculating reserve, layered over occasional uncertainty, make her at least as formidable an opponent as her husband and probably one of the more believable political wives we’ve seen in quite a while. Mara is also good as intrepid, if purchased, reporter Zoe Barnes and Corey Stoll makes alcoholic Congressman Peter Russo surprisingly engaging.

House of Cards promo pic1

The episodes are well directed, with Fincher giving the pilot particular flair. From the halls of Congress to the offices of the Washington Herald to Zoe’s run-down apartment, each location feels very informed by the people who fill it. The aura of money drips from the Underwood’s home and the harsh lights of the Herald immediately jar the audience back to the real world. If Lilyhammer was Netflix’s soft open, House of Cards’s grand opening puts them immediately on par with the prestige dramas of HBO and Showtime, an easy contender for next year’s Emmy race, particularly if they submit as a miniseries.

The single element that raises a red flag is the use of occasional asides to the audience from Frank. Turning to the camera and breaking the fourth wall, Frank describes motivations, backstories, and in other ways provides color commentary to the rest of the action. It’s the sole stylistic flourish of its kind and, though this is a carryover from the original miniseries, it’s incredibly jarring. Some work better than others, but these mini-monologues usually slow down the action and transfer the smug self-satisfaction of the main character to the series as a whole. Present in every episode, this was clearly a measured decision from the creators and it’s a surprising misstep.

As a whole, House of Cards is a confident first step for Netflix into the arena of original programming. It’s well-made, if not groundbreaking artistically, and while it doesn’t focus on the kinds of twists and action that demand marathon viewing, as this is clearly intended to be, it’s definitely worth checking out, if only for Spacey and Wright. Between this and the upcoming return of Arrested Development, Netflix has put themselves on the board and they’re certain to see significant membership increases. Whether it’s enough to offset the investment will remain to be seen, but the question of “what next?” is certainly one this reviewer will follow with interest.

What did you think of House of Cards? Are you excited for more new programming following this release model? What genre would you like to see Netflix tackle next? Post your thoughts below!

Kate Kulzick

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