When Netflix announced that they would get into the scripted programming game, with three high profile projects all lined up for the first half of 2013 (including the Eli Roth literary-based Gothic horror project “Hemlock Grove” and the hopefully rapturous return of oddball comedy classic “Arrested Development“), it seemed that the possibilities, in theory, were endless. Netflix would be unburdened by the restraints, in both content and form, of the tired, old ad revenue-dependent television model (premium cable, while remaining fuzzier, still depends on subscribers), free to provocatively reshape our formalized notion of “television” and “shows.” Except, that didn’t happen. At least not yet. It’s first big, splashy original production, a David Fincher, Kevin Spacey and Eric Roth-produced remake of the British miniseries “House Of Cards,” doesn’t take any bold structural or stylistic detours. But it is totally fucking brilliant just the same.
In the opening seconds of the first episode (or “Chapter 1”), our main character, the congressional Majority Whip Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), walks out of his Georgetown brownstone, leans down to investigate a neighbor’s dog that had just been struck by a car and calmly, while delivering a monologue into the camera about suffering, kills the dog. Such perversity is second nature to Fincher, who directed the first two episodes and who once developed an entry of the bubbly “Mission: Impossible” franchise around black market organ harvesting, but it’s still a bold way to open up a series. Especially since this is the character we’re supposed to be following for thirteen episodes.
From there, things are set up very quickly – a new president (Michael Gill) has just been elected and Underwood, who was heavily involved in the successful campaign, has been passed over for the position of Secretary of State. The President’s Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez (played by Sakina Jaffrey and whom Spacey, laying on a molasses-thick drawl, describes as “tougher than a 12-dollar steak”) informs Underwood that he would be better utilized if he stayed in Congress. Underwood is furious and quickly devises a way to strike back at the administration with the loving blessing of his wife Claire (Robin Wright), who runs a nonprofit that specializes in delivering clean water to underdeveloped parts of the world. (This subplot should take on additional heft as the series rolls along, right now it feels very much like groundwork and the only element of the show that feels somewhat laborious.)
As “Chapter 1” develops, the various cogs in Underwood’s machine snap into focus as a series of interlocking subplots, most notably the involvement of Zoe Barns (Kate Mara), a struggling, peppy young reporter who is having trouble being taken seriously at her paper, the fictional Washington Herald. An early sequence where she fights with her superior about the changing face of media might as well be directed at the audience, given its hefty metaphoric implications for “House of Cards,” a TV show that is debuting for many on silvery computer screens. After attending an inaugural party where Underwood is photographed oogling her in a white dress that seems less worn than spray-painted on, she makes an uneasy alliance with the Congressman. He agrees to ply her with crucial scoops, which compromise her morally but could be responsible for a meteoric career boost. She agrees to the deal and quickly leaks a proposed education bill that Underwood knows is too left-of-center for the young administration.
Other colorful characters involved in his Shakespearean scheme include Representative Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), a Congressman who is pulled over about halfway through “Chapter 1” under the influence and with a hooker in his car, who becomes Underwood’s morally bankrupt lackey; Christina Gallagher (Kristen Connolly) as Russo’s executive assistant and lover; Senator Catherine Durant (Jayne Atkinson), a fellow Southerner whom Underwood looks to install as Secretary of State; and Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali), an intimidating lobbyist who Underwood says made the crucial mistake of choosing money over power, and who is keenly interested in whether or not the new president’s policies will benefit his clients.
“Chapter 1” brilliantly sets up the kind of backstabbing and betrayal that will undoubtedly continue to flow. This makes it sound like a more sophisticated version of “Scandal,” but it most certainly is not (it’s so much more). As written by “Ides of March” scribe Beau Williamson and directed by Fincher, “Chapter 1” pops. Fincher is at the top of his game, as always, utilizing digital photography in a way that he has developed over the last few movies, with a wintery color palette and camera movements so glacially smooth that it’s like the camera was being slid over a snow-dusted frozen pond. Nothing is ever particularly showy, but you know you’re in the hands of a master stylist.
The device of Spacey looking into the camera to address the audience could have been hoary and crass, equal parts “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and Showtime‘s bland, similarly titled “House of Lies,” but the way it works here is ingenious and feels genuinely fresh – it offers not only key insight into Underwood’s character (and it should be noted that Spacey hasn’t been this good in years), but it also helps to clarify or untangle what is, in two episodes, already a sprawling and intricately knotty plot filled with dozens of characters (each with their own thorny motivation). And the way Fincher films these asides, too, is brilliant – instead of them coming across as pure fantasy, Fincher lingers, watching as Spacey’s head turns away from the camera and back to a conversation he’s having with another character that is actually in the room. It’s a subtle little thing but it goes a long way to sell the stylistic tic.
“Chapter 2,” is less beholden to the set-up, and portions of Underwood’s scheme start to actually get done (what these things are, we’re hesitant to reveal). Fincher, too, is able to luxuriate in this world, occasionally eschewing the dense political discussion for creating equally powerful sequences of domestic life between Claire and Frank. It’s these moments that seem genuinely refreshing – it would be the first thing a TV executive or ad guy would say needed to be cut. “Why the fuck are they talking about a rowing machine? Lose it. Unless we could get product placement…” would probably be the note. But these are the scenes that help enrich and elevate “House of Cards.”
A great moment from “Chapter 2” occurs when Underwood dispatches Russo to track down a classmate of the man the President wants to assign to Secretary of State (and whose name appeared on a seemingly anti-Semitic school newspaper article). It’s grungy and filthy and funny and Stoll, along with Mara (who gets the best line of the pilot: “Brian, you’re so sweet but if I was gonna fuck you, you’d know”), is an early candidate for MVP, his eyes going wild with possibility (and drugs). He’s a character whose vices have gotten him ensnared by a far bigger devil. Amazingly, in these two episodes, Fincher and his collaborators have already established a kind of visual shorthand: when Spacey stands at the window with a hand-rolled cigarette, you know what that means, already. Especially when Wright, who has never looked so beautiful and sharp, joins him. In “Chapter 1” Spacey coos, “I love that woman, I love her like a shark loves blood.” It’s easy to see why.
There is an element of dangerous unpredictability to “House of Cards,” possibly aided by its nontraditional format, that is truly refreshing. It might be reminiscent of a number of genre tropes, and formally isn’t all that different from the kind of material you could find on premium cable, but it has an energy and wit all its own. It seems and looks and feels genuinely different, and wholly brilliant. It will be interesting to see, as the series passes off to different directors, if this kind of toothsome energy can continue. Since all of the episodes are available now, we’ll know soon enough, but we just hope this “House of Cards” doesn’t come tumbling down as we continue to dive in. [First two episodes: A]
All thirteen episodes of “House Of Cards” Season One are now available on Netflix.