This Week on Demand: House of Cards (Part 1)

1

house1


Editor’s Note: this piece is a review of the first season of House of Cards. For Ronan’s examination of the ramifications of Netflix’s move to original programming, see here.

What’s interesting, given its foregrounding as the horse on which the future of television has been bet, is just how much House of Cards draws on the past. Most prominently in its standing as a remake of the successful British series of the same name from the 1990s, it is a show entrenched—in its dramatic techniques as much as its narrative origins—far more in the then and there than in the here and now. Its premiere—or rather simply its first episode, for each of the thirteen arrived on Netflix simultaneously around the world—opens to the whimpers of a dog, unfortunate victim to a hit and run outside the home of Congressman Francis Underwood. As he stares at the dog with a look as much of disapproval as of pity, Underwood espouses the virtues of a man who knows what needs to be done and is willing to do it, turning to look directly into the camera—and our eyes—as he suffocates the ailing animal.

Underwood, portrayed by a Kevin Spacey reprising the scheming brilliance of The Usual Suspects and Southern drawl of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is an antihero equal parts Macbeth and Machiavelli, ruthlessly conniving as he tricks and threatens his way to the top of Capitol Hill.

house3It’s a form of address straight out of Shakespeare, evidently a key influence for series creator Beau Willimon, whose name adorns all but three of this first season’s episodes. Underwood, portrayed by a Kevin Spacey reprising the scheming brilliance of The Usual Suspects and Southern drawl of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is an antihero equal parts Macbeth and Machiavelli, ruthlessly conniving as he tricks and threatens his way to the top of Capitol Hill. Perhaps it’s a convenience, then, that he seems so disrespectful of the fourth wall; Spacey’s frequent direct address, offering to the audience insights aplenty into his multilayered ploys and those they aim to affect, plays more like a convenient crutch of expositional ease than a useful dramatic tool. Given its determined self-proclamation as the future of television, it’s ironic that House of Cards should take as one of its defining features a device so rooted in the past of an entirely different medium altogether. It’s telling that the season’s sole inspired implementation of these soliloquies is in the form of a cheeky gag in the finale; it’s a technique far more at home in Malcolm in the Middle than here.

Yet like his fellow congressmen, seduced—if often begrudgingly—by the two-pronged approach of his speech and stare, we are won over by the wiles of Underwood, caught in the snares of his venomous charisma and forced to look on aghast as he wreaks havoc with our lives—or at least, in our case, our free time. Such is the captivating nature of Spacey’s performance and compelling complexity of Willimon’s plotting that we are lost in this character, drawn in despite the distractions. From The Sopranos to Breaking Bad, TV in the modern age has been obsessed with the ways of wicked men; there’s a certain voyeuristic thrill in being proxy

to Underwood’s venal operations that makes us complicit in these crass political dealings, eager to see the success of a man we should despise—in fact, it’s this paradox of audience identification that Willimon should seek to play upon in future seasons if he wants to make an asset of his biggest issue.

Such is the captivating nature of Spacey’s performance and compelling complexity of Willimon’s plotting that we are lost in this character, drawn in despite the distractions. From The Sopranos to Breaking Bad, TV in the modern age has been obsessed with the ways of wicked men; there’s a certain voyeuristic thrill in being proxy to Underwood’s venal operations that makes us complicit in these crass political dealings, eager to see the success of a man we should despise…

house4The casting of Spacey will be one of the show’s biggest draws, but no less impressive is the support with which he’s surrounded. Robin Wright is the Lady to his Macbeth, ably shouldering the initially less interesting section of the equally-savvy Underwoods’ clandestine schemes and imbuing her character with an agency and importance other male-centric series have struggled to invest in their female leads. Aimed squarely at the youth audience is Kate Mara as an up-and-coming political reporter, a similarly strong character whose personal issues away from the primary plot seem often—at least for now—little more than filler. But it’s Corey Stoll who brings the most to the show, playing a hard-partying young Congressman whom Underwood takes on equally as puppet and protégé, and whose position as the moral centre of the show leads to its most convincingly emotional character moments as his principles inevitably fall victim to the cut-throat world of Washington.

Matching the prestige of a Scorsese-led Boardwalk Empire and the Michael Mann-helmed Luck, House of Cards follows the trend of equalling the calibre of its cast in its crew, soliciting David Fincher to direct the opening two episodes. The template he lays, externalising the brooding drama in the cold, stern palette of blues and greys, together with the esteemed roster of directors who take over including Joel Schumacher and Glengarry Glen Ross’ James Foley—both, like Fincher, former collaborators of Spacey—ensures the show’s standing on a visual level to rival all other TV productions. It’s this aesthetic excellence, together with the impervious quality of the cast throughout, that holds the attention long enough for Willimon to find his feet and weave his captivating web of deft dialogue and pensive plotting. It’s not great television—not yet, at least—but House of Cards has laid the foundations. Whether Netflix will indeed be the future of TV or not is anybody’s guess at this point; what’s clear, regardless, is that this series has one.

Share.

About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.

  • I’ve hears so many great things about this new series that I will have to see it pronto