Netflix premieres new political drama

FRANK UNDERWOOD (KEVIN SPACEY) AND DOUG STAMPER (MICHAEL KELLY) PLAN machinations in their office, surrounded by ridiculous amounts of Apple product placement.

This week, I’m doing things a little differently. Essentially, I was too disinterested in pretty much every film release this past weekend; Warm Bodies gets an honorable mention, although I still couldn’t bring myself to go to the theater to see it.

Instead, I curled up with Netflix and decided to try out their new original series House of Cards. Now, as someone was quick to point out to me, House of Cards isn’t really “original” in the strictest sense of the word; it is in fact a remake of a BBC mini-series of the same name, which is in turn based on a UK novel. However, the author of the novel and the creators of the BBC series are both involved in the production of the Netflix show, lending it credence and legitimacy. Besides all this, however, House of Cards represents an important shift in the television medium, and it’s pretty great to boot.

Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey is the star of this political drama, in which the newly elected President, who had promised him a position as Secretary of State, reneges on his word and snubs Spacey’s Francis “Frank” Underwood. However, Underwood is not the kind of man who takes such a breach of trust lying down; the show centers on his attempts at enacting revenge by using his substantial influence and power as House Majority Whip. Underwood’s scheming serves as a web as he ensnares more and more people and manipulates them as pieces in his game.

Kevin Spacey could just have coasted through this role, seeing as how his star power is half the marketing behind it. Instead, he revels in the role, and his Underwood is reason alone to watch this show. His portrayal as a ruthless politician, perfectly capable of transforming himself and manipulating others for his own ends, is brilliant. There are touches to his performance that make it stand out as truly nuanced: his amusing barbecue ribs cravings, his playing of console first-person shooters to unwind, the flashes of annoyance that flicker across his face when things go wrong, and how quickly he becomes impassive a split second later. But what truly draws you to this character is just how far he is willing to go to get what he wants, and the fact that he does not take no for an answer. As described by his wife, Underwood is the kind of man who knows what he wants, and takes it when he wants it. Spacey’s performance makes you feel like this is a man who wields an immense amount of power and influence, and is not one to be trifled with. His performance, overall, is fascinating and maybe even a little frightening at times.

Surrounding Spacey is a remarkably talented cast, none of which allow Spacey’s towering performance to overshadow them. Robin Wright plays Claire, Spacey’s loyal, activist wife. Claire admires the sense of power that her husband exudes, and basks in it. However, despite her love of power she is the more human and responsible of the two, and this becomes clearer further into season one as their goals and motives diverge. Meanwhile, Kate Mara portrays a young reporter willing to do anything to get a story, including becoming Underwood’s mistress. Mara does very well in a role that seems a little cliché on paper, but which is actually very interesting in practice; her back and forth with Spacey and her general bluntness make her a very compelling character.

Beyond the two women in Underwood’s life, Michael Kelly plays Doug Stamper, Underwood’s right hand man. Stamper’s role as the loyal right hand to Spacey’s “ruthless boss” isn’t uncommon, but characters like this have always fascinated me. Stamper is the man that Underwood can trust above anyone else, and is the most reliable card in the house he is erecting. Stamper goes so far as to serve as a “fixer,” making Underwood’s problems go away and generally working in the background to help his boss attain his goals. Kelly conducts himself well in the role, and even instills a bit of a heart into a character who is otherwise as ruthless as his boss. Finally, Corey Stoll acts as a U.S. Representative with a substance abuse problem, who Underwood decides to use as a pawn in his plans. Stoll’s performance makes his character easier to root for, and provides the show with a lot of emotional depth that its main character doesn’t always display. Overall, he serves as a good antiparallel to the more emotionless, in-control attitude of Spacey’s Underwood.

This show is very filmic, down to its production, which includes a film screenwriter and A-list director David Fincher. Fincher only directs the first two episodes, but his style serves as the blueprint for the other episodes to follow. You definitely get a sense of his slow burn build up, something he used to great effect in his film Zodiac. Beyond that, other stylistic flourishes include his use of CGI overlays to showcase things like texting and his general showcasing of technology, indicating his understanding of its role in the modern political landscape. The cinematography and music employed are also of a particularly high caliber, and Fincher takes advantage of both as he sweeps around Washington D.C. and plays the thrumming theme of the show whenever Underwood makes another move in his overarching game of political chess. Directors in later episodes pick up on all the cues established by Fincher and add to it, but his style pervades the entire season.

Beau Willimon created and wrote this show, and it does not feel dissimilar to his widely praised political thriller The Ides of March. The same themes of dirty politics are employed in House of Cards, and the dialogue and overall writing style seems very in line with that previous work. While the show is written very well, there are some problems: some of the dialogue isn’t the best fit for certain characters, and it sometimes feels as though Willimon is trying to imitate the fast-paced, jargon-strewn writing of Aaron Sorkin (of The Social Network fame). Unfortunately, Willimon’s attempts to imitate Sorkin’s style (if that is what he is doing) come off as awkward, as he sometimes changes the pace of the dialogue at odd times. This is a minor gripe, though, and overall I find his writing to be very good, enough so that I certainly want to enjoy more of the story he is trying to tell. The asides to the camera that he writes for Spacey are of particular note and, despite the fact that they are a borrowed element from the BBC show, strike me as one of the shows defining stylistic choices and highlights.

So House of Cards is a very good television show, easily on par with what you’d find on a premium cable network like HBO or Showtime. Beyond this, though, House of Cards also represents a dramatic alteration in the way we acquire and consume television. By offering the entire season of the show in one fell swoop, and thus allowing even one month trial members to enjoy it, Netflix is taking a gamble that the future of television is not in a weekly episode format, but rather in a long-film kind of stretch. Honestly, I personally prefer this kind of format, as it allows me to enjoy the show at my own pace and not require the foaming at the mouth that occurs as I await the weekly episode of shows like Game of Thrones. Besides this, though, Netflix is also betting that producing a very expensive, television cable subscription-free show of this quality will ensure that people stick around to see what else is up their sleeve, and maybe even entice new members to find out what Netflix is capable of. If House of Cards is any indication, I don’t see myself ending my Netflix subscription any time soon.