“Nobody’s a boy scout. Not even boy scouts,” drawls Kevin Spacey’s Francis “Frank” Underwood. As the mastermind congressman suggests, all players in Netflix’s “House of Cards” have sharp teeth and like the taste of blood. The new series, which is based on the original BBC production, is executive produced and helmed in part by David Fincher, and has the cool grey-gold look and streamlined efficiency of the director’s work.
Majority whip House Representative Frank is thrown over for what he viewed as a shoo-in Secretary of State nomination. Instead of pickling in bitterness, he sees the snub as chum in the water. Frank goes along with his foreseeable future in congress, all copacetic smiles and ingratiating cooperation, while secretly hatching a devious plan to dismantle the entire office of the newly inaugurated President. When Frank is approached by fresh-faced Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a young Washington Herald reporter desperate for a break and wielding an incriminating photo of the congressman, he treats the blackmail as a win-win situation. He strategically leaks juicy news items to Zoe — insider documents that put egg on the faces of his targets — and she gets a series of front-page Herald scoops.
A slew of other polished yet unsavory characters are also swimming around in the D.C. shark tank, including piggish party-boy Congressman Russo (Corey Stoll), Frank’s henchman aide (Michael Kelly) and, last but certainly not least, Frank’s calm, ruthless wife, Claire (Robin Wright), who oversees her charity Clean Water Initiative with an iron fist. She oversees Frank with an equal stranglehold, relishing his plan to get angry and get even, and even buying him a rowing machine to keep his body as sharp as his mind. This proves pertinent during Frank’s first information exchange with Zoe, when the two have a Bond-esque meeting seated in front of Thomas Eakins’ “Biglin Brothers Racing” at the National Gallery of Art. The key is to rock the boat without falling in, Frank tells Zoe. She may not fully understand that Frank means to bite the boat in half.
Spacey is delightfully high-camp as Frank. He knocks his eerily placid voice down a register and slides around like a pig in shit on the congressman’s drawn-out Southern vowels. From a script standpoint, Frank functions as the lead character but also as the master of ceremonies, turning to the camera every few minutes (as did the great Ian Richardson in the original) to describe the power-players in the room, or to demonstrate the delicate art of turning a conversation upside down and into his well-tailored pocket. This could play as a hackneyed convention — or clunky exposition — but with Fincher’s sleek direction and Spacey’s commitment to the villainous role it has an alluring effect.
Fincher is a director now synonymous with the A-level budgets he commands, yet the projects he chooses often have B-movie pulpiness at the heart. On more than one occasion his films have revolved around serial killers (“Se7en,” “Zodiac” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), a sub-genre with a natural tendency away from traditional prestige and toward down-and-dirty exploitation. Talky political dramas don’t often have this trapping, which is what makes “House of Cards” refreshing. It’s a well-oiled, classy production with an over-the-top soul.
In full disclosure, I was only able to preview the series’ first two episodes, which is where Fincher’s direction begins and ends. (And, in the spirit of said disclosure, I’m a big fan of Fincher.) Whether the show will keep up its slickly humming suspense and diabolical dialogue–which approaches cheesiness without succumbing to it–remains to be seen. (Some folks may be consuming the series all in one go; NYT analysis of binge-watching here; LAT here.)
Included in the list of directors to take over helming duties are Joel Schumacher, Carl Franklin and Allen Coulter. They have between them on their resumés, among other things, “The Lost Boys,” “Devil in a Blue Dress” and episodes of “The Sopranos,” so the class-camp balance may continue to be struck. Aside from Spacey, Wright, Stoll and Mara all turn in solid performances, in tune with the carnivorous tone of the show. I’m rooting for this house of cards to stand its ground.
All 13 episodes of "House of Cards" are available for streaming starting February 1 on Netflix (and the first episode is streaming for free here). Find out more about the series' high production budget and confirmed second season, as well as Netflix's commitment to the content business, here.