Netflix has thrown its hat into the ring of original programming with HOUSE OF CARDS, a sharp political drama that delves into the none too clean waters of Washington DC. The show focuses on Francis Underwood, a democratic congressman from South Carolina who is the House Majority Whip, and his wife, Claire, who runs a charity that focuses on clean water. Francis is an ambitious man who played a large role in getting the incumbent president, Garrett Walker, elected, however, when Linda Vasquez, the new Chief of Staff, informs him that they will not follow through with their promise to make him Secretary of State, he decides to attack the administration until he gets what he feels he is entitled to, all while keeping a façade of being a team player and valuable asset to the White House. To achieve his goals he enlists the help of his wife, who is very much a partner in his plays for power, Zoe Barnes, a young reporter who is desperate to advance her career, Doug Stamper, Underwood’s Chief of Staff who is everything from adviser to bag man, and Peter Russo, an alcoholic and drug addicted congressman who Francis blackmail’s to help further his agenda. Its said that the best laid plans are quick to go awry and that is doubly so in politics, Francis is forced to maneuver around home district problems, union strikes, lobbyists, political rivals, romantic entanglements (of course a congressman is going to sleep with this attractive reporter pet, this is TV), and betrayals on all sides. When you throw all this together you get a show that has a wonderful landscape of intriguing characters with questionable morals and conflicting agendas that will have you wondering just how far people will go to achieve their ambitions.
Some of the more devout BBC fans out there may recognize that HOUSE OF CARDS is a remake of 1990’s BBC show of the same name, however, given the time interval, I don’t think the original casts any kind of shadow on this new version. The visual tone for this remake is delivered by David Fincher (THE SOCIAL NETWORK) who directs the first two episodes and is an executive producer on the series. The show has a crisp, polished feel to it, but it becomes truly beautiful in the night scenes. There is a wonderful use of light and shadow in the series, mainly in night scenes, to accentuate the differing relationships and tensions going on in the story; at times the visual style is so striking that you think you are watching AMERICAN BEAUTY the TV series. Besides the wonderful use of lighting, there a great deal of creative framing and shot angles, usually in the more personal scenes, that heightens the emotion connections between the characters. I was very pleased that this kind of creativity doesn’t end with Fincher, but continues throughout the series even when other directors take the helm.
The best way to hook me on a TV show is to give me great characters that are fun to watch, and the cast of HOUSE OF CARDS certainly delivers some entertaining characters. Kevin Spacey (HORRIBLE BOSSES) stars as Francis Underwood and he is phenomenal in the role. Spacey has a long history of playing both likable everymen and sinister bastards, which makes him perfect for playing a vicious politician who must maintain a public face. His asides to the audience are a treat for fans of scoundrels and his portrayal of calm, collected power is beyond realistic. Robin Wright (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) plays Claire Underwood and has really impressed me with the role. I have been watching her movies since I was a kid (who doesn’t love THE PRINCESS BRIDE?) but I have never seen her give a performance of this caliber. Claire is a steely ice queen in full control of her emotions who refuses to let people control her; not only does Robin Wright make this character believable, she humanizes her without making her seem weak, this is the kind of performance that can redefine a career. Michael Kelly (TV’s PERSON OF INTEREST) fills the role of Doug Stamper, Underwood’s Chief of Staff. I am not overly familiar with Kelly’s work, as I’ve only seen him sporadically on various TV shows, however, I really like him in the role of Stamper. He plays the quiet, morally ambiguous Stamper with a cool confidence that makes the character intriguing. Kate Mara (TV’s AMERICAN HORROR STORY) steps into the role of Zoe Barnes, and she is a scene stealer. Mara hadn’t been on my radar prior to this, her face was familiar to me but I could think of nothing memorable I’d seen her in, I don’t think that will be a problem in the future. Mara is delightful as the hyper ambitious Zoe, bringing a sense of youth and energy to the often aged world of politics. Mara’s infuses Zoe with a brash confidence that grabs and holds your attention whenever she is on screen. Corey Stoll (THE BOURNE LEGACY) portrays Peter Russo, the drug and alcohol addicted congressman that Underwood is blackmailing. Stoll does a nice job with the role, giving an accurate portrayal of a man burdened by addition and guilt who is put in an impossible situation. As a character, Russo probably goes through the most changes throughout the season and Stoll easily handles the transitions and always gives a good performance. Lastly, Kristen Connolly (THE CABIN IN THE WOODS) plays Christina Gallagher, a member of Russo’s staff and his secret romantic partner. Connolly handles the emotionally man handled Gallagher with a strength and poise that makes the character rather interesting; I look forward to seeing what they do with her in the coming season.
I only have one issue with the show, and it may not even end up being a real issues. Fair warning, this deals with the end of the season so if you don’t want even minor spoilers, stop reading now. As the season winds down things are set in motion that indicate everything is going to go wrong for Francis in the second season. This is formulaic crap that I am tired of seeing in TV dramas (BOARDWALK EMPIRE anyone?). There are plenty of ways to keep a show dramatic without completely annihilating the main protagonists ambitions and throwing them into a whirlwind of shit. If HOUSE OF CARDS follows this overplayed format I don’t know if it will be able to hold my interest for another season, because I am sick of this played out routine.
HOUSE OF CARDS is a very fun political drama. There are a slew of great characters and it has a captivating visual style that makes it enjoyable to watch. If you are a fan of any of the actors on the show, like politics, or just like good TV dramas, then this show is for you. Netflix has entered the original programming game strong, but only the future will tell if it has staying power.
Final Score: 9 out of 10