House of Cards (NETFLIX) Starring Kevin Spacey; Robin Wright; Kate Mara; Corey Stoll; Michael Kelly; Kristen Connolly; Michael Gill; Constance Zimmer; Sakina Jaffrey; Gerald McRaney; Mahershal Ali; Rachel Brosnan; Kevin Kilner; Al Sapienza; Sebastian Arcelus; Sandribe Holt; Reg Cathy; Carly Heath; Wass Stevens
Movie giant Netflix hits the next step in its bid toward creating its own content with a second release (following last years’ Lilyhammer) of a dramatic episodic series via the site’s instant watch option. This time they’ve made all of the initial season 1 episodes available at once, a strategy allowing for the potential binge viewing that has become de rigeur due to increased content availability from a variety of on line and cable venues.
It is understandable if the subject matter feels familiar as it seems to draw from, or at least mirror, a variety of sources. It was based on a Richard III inspired novel by former British Conservative Chief of Staff Michael Dobbs, and the 1990 BBC mini-series of the same name. Co-creator/Showrunner Beau Willimon is the man behind George Clooney’s The Ides of March (2011), which was based on Willimon’s play Faragaut North. The series also reminds us of STARZ’ recently departed Boss, with the Hamlet-like lead character and his wife bearing an uncomfortably close resemblance to those played by Kelsey Grammar and Connie Nielsen. Finally, the basic set-up also shares major similarities with another British series, State of Play (2003), that also became a 2009 American film.
Each of the aforementioned projects involved politics and a declining newspaper industry, and the oft unholy reciprocal bond that exists between the two institutions. We’ve seen various shades of the same kind of story-lines in multiple other films and series as well, from The West Wing (1996-2006); to K Street (2003); to All The President’s Men (1976) to name a few. Still, regardless of the extent of the genre saturation, there is always room for well-written, well-acted, and well-structured narrative, regardless of the medium or mode of delivery.
Coming off a recent similarly styled role as another Washington insider, Jack Abramoff, in 2010’s Casino Jack, 53 year old Kevin Spacey as House Majority Whip Francis Underwood (Ian Richardson was another F.U., Francis Urquhart, in the original) is in full Spacey mode, as nasty, smarmy, and condescending as ever, though his performance is thankfully modulated enough that the piece is grounded in the realm of the real. The still exquisite Robin Wright is his ice princess bride Claire, a character who has also made her fair share of questionable compromises in the name of upward mobility and the acquisition and maintenance of power. The lovely, youthful looking Kate Mara plays Zoe Barnes, a young DC reporter mired in a low level reporter’s job, who strikes professional gold when all of her desperately ambitious prayers are answered via the consummation of her new-found alliance a with Underwood.
There is a large supporting cast full of mostly strong players, with Corey Stoll (fine, though not fully believable as a man with a blue collar background) as troubled Congressman Joe Russo and Michael Kelly as Underwood’s ever loyal right hand man Doug Stamper among those seeing the most screen time. There are moments of interest from actors like Gerard McRaney as Billionaire Raymond Tusk; Constance Zimmer as veteran reporter Janine Skorsky; and Mahershala Ali as slick, ex-politico corporate attorney Remy Danton, but the show is all about Spacey; Wright; and Mara.
Held over from the original series are the asides Spacey makes to the camera, breaking the fourth wall as he comments on the proceedings and reveals his actual thoughts. Spacey is right at home with this kind of artifice - a nod to Shakespeare that fits in fine with a classically trained former Richard and current artistic director of The Old Vic theater. The device is not overly intrusive, though by its nature the Tony Soprano-in-Melfi’s-office-like confessionals butt up against the largely understated moment-to-moment of the show. Without it, House of Cards (ala Walter White in Breaking Bad) might have gotten some mystery mileage out of having a calculating lead who doesn’t disclose his every motivation.
Following Co-creator/Executive Producer David Fincher’s turn at the pilot and second episode, the series follows him with pedigreed feature directors like Carl Franklin; Joel Schumacher; and James Foley. Fincher, of course, sets a solid, apt visual tone for the series; and though it takes few stylistic risks, it keeps consistent with its portrayal of D.C. in night shadows. Relatively limited in its locations, it still feels fittingly big enough to support the very ambitious material. There are a few stumbles with some of the details (the newspaper stuff; some logic gaps in the thriller aspects), but the first season is a quality effort that for the most part does a laudable job keeping things moving and retaining a handle on the tension quotient.
House of Cards has a locked-in two season commitment, and with 100 million and a bet on a new model invested in its success, it will be interesting to see if this daring venture into uncharted territory pays off. A lack of traditional ratings numbers and Netflix’ refusal to release its own numbers may make discerning that success a less than automatic proposition; though from a purely qualitative standpoint the product is at least on par with top tier cable television programming.