Today, Netflix dropped all 13 episodes of the initial season of its first major original series, “House of Cards,” online for its subscribers — a political drama from Beau Willimon, David Fincher and Kevin Spacey, who plays the lead role of Representative Frank Underwood, House Majority Whip and consummate political animal. It’s a bold business move for the company, a direct challenge to cable networks like HBO who’ve built their brand around quality programming — why go to the linear channels trickling out content when you can watch a hopefully equivalent series online, from the same place many people these days are going for their TV anyway?
It’s also, hype aside, a genuine glimpse of a possible future for the medium. Giving up half of the serialized aspect of a serialized show is a gamble, one that threatens to do away with the anticipation and the months-long conversation that for some is the very nature of TV. But a growing share of the audience cutting the cord and going cable-free, and with shows like “The Wire” finding much larger followings on DVD or streaming years after their original broadcast run is over, maybe the idea of spacing episodes out over weeks is a structural remnant of a release pattern that, like LP-dictated albums for music, is no longer that relevant or necessary. If binge-watching is how TV is being consumed, why not make a show with that in mind?
Certainly “House of Cards” is not guided by an obligation to dazzle out of the gate in the way a traditional TV show would, nor to have its installments stand entirely alone as neatly formed episodes. Netflix offered the first two episodes, which were directed by Fincher with a gorgeously premium sheen that the subsequent chapters copy, to press to cover weeks ago, but they felt, to this writer, like the first 20 minutes of a movie, promising but with no pull and no sense of whatever whole would be unveiled. They were impossible, for me, to write about, all scene-setting, and were they released in a traditional fashion they’d be indicative of a show I’d be intrigued but ambivalent about, a chilly, cynical and possibly soulless take on D.C. more interesting for who’s working on it than for what’s actually on screen.
I’ve watched six episodes now — the first two, from Fincher, are followed by two directed by James Foley (“Glengarry Glen Ross”) and then two directed by, oddly Joel Schumacher — and approaching its halfway point “House of Cards” looks less like an experiment and more like a very good series, coming close to a great one. Like “Deadwood” and other initially forbiddingly dense series, “House of Cards” might just be a “needs three episodes” situation, but it’s also in even less of a hurry than the (mainly) HBO sagas that it’s similar to. “House of Cards” was guaranteed two 13-episode seasons off the bat, and it uses the luxury of that runtime to ease the audience into Underwood’s world, into his place as an extremely pragmatic politician with no apparent personal loyalties to anyone but his wife Claire (Robin Wright), his Lady Macbeth.
Well, Underwood is more of an Iago — “House of Cards” starts with him being told by the president (Michael Gill) he just helped elect that he wouldn’t be given the position of Secretary of State he’d been promised. He’s needed in the House, he’s told, and he agrees like a good soldier, while inside already planning his revenge. Spacey is his best dead-eyed, velvety voiced self as Underwood, a South Carolinan who came up from poverty to become a ruthlessly self-motivated bastard who’s generally great at what he does.
And while he treats people like strategic tokens, he shows his true face to us in fourth-wall breaking asides to the camera in which he drops the bullshit and explains freely what’s on his mind. It’s at first at coy device, though it becomes less so as the series goes in its machinations from D.C. abstracts to grounded details, ones involving the Teachers Union, a powerful oil lobbyist and former colleague named Remy (Mahershala Ali), Claire’s water nonprofit and an ambitious blogger named Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) who develops a mutually beneficial relationship with Underwood.
Underwood’s asides to the camera start to seem more like his attempts at asserting control over the narrative than just winks to the crowd as we come to understand him as someone for whom the game is everything. He has no children and few passions aside from a favorite rib place in a rougher part of town, and he seems to prefer to be the man behind the one in charge than to be on top. His strengths are in his remove, in the true feelings he keeps tamped down and that we, and the equally cool-tempered Claire, are the only ones priviledged to see. Spacey’s stagy slipperiness works well in this regard — Underwood may not be quite as in control as he’d like to believe, but he’s terrific at manipulating people, even when he can barely conceal his contempt.
“House of Cards” starts off at a remove, but it really gets going when its story plunges into something like the real world, one in which Bill Maher and Dennis Miller comment on the proceding on TV and a gaff on CNN gets autotuned into a viral clip, where an education bill is broken down and haggled over in terms of details on charter schools and collective bargaining and the slower moving but responsible reporting of a newspaper is put up against a fast-paced website in which an editor tells a writer she can just post her stories herself as soon as she’s done with them. Corey Stoll is thrown into the mix as a Philly rep named Peter Russo with a taste for the ladies, for drugs and for alcohol, Kristen Connolly plays his assistant/girlfriend, and later Sandrine Holt enters as the head of a grassroots organization who Claire wants to hire. The idealists tend to have a tough time of things on the show, as does anyone who shows any weakness — calculation is key.
The series doesn’t get too bogged down in policy or contemporary developments, but it plays against a backdrop of it in a way that makes its intelligence clear, particularly in the story of Zoe and her ethically questionable but undoubtedly successful path toward media stardom. The third episode (as is always the pattern with these things) is where the show seems to find its feet, as Underwood’s called home to his district to head off a local but potentially serious problem while trying to manage the education bill he’s supposed to be overseeing remotely by phone.
“I just hate this small ball crap,” he hisses to the camera, but when we see him in action it’s clear it’s where he’s best, as he deals with a man planning to run against him in the next election. “House of Cards” makes for an interesting counterpoint to “Lincoln” — both written by playrights — in that the latter presents the imperfect messiness of the give-and-take of the democratic process as something ultimately capable powering us toward the greater good, while the former suggests its a wild tangle of self interests that only incidentally may yield something worthwhile. Either way, it’s Francis Underwood’s world for the taking — it’s when you actually care that you get in trouble.