Ten days ago, Beau Willimon, David Fincher, Kevin Spacey and Netflix hoped to change the future of television with “House of Cards,” the first high-profile series to be produced by, and air exclusively on, the streaming platform. A remake of the late 1980s BBC miniseries (itself based on the book by Michael Dobbs), the 13-part first season of “House Of Cards” was adapted by “The Ides of March” co-writer Beau Willimon who developed the series for Netflix. Executive-produced by Fincher, who also directed the first two episodes, with Spacey leading a cast that also includes Robin Wright, Corey Stoll, Kate Mara and many more.
What’s it about? Deceit, betrayals, duplicity, and political manuevering on Capitol Hill, centering on a ruthless congressman — Democrat and U.S. Representative Francis J. Underwood (Kevin Spacey) — who will stop at almost nothing to secure the top job in Washington, D.C.
We’ve already reviewed the first two episodes, but now a decent enough amount of time has lapsed for us, and hopefully some of you, to get beyond the opening and actually finish the series (and data indicates that a surprising chunk of viewers binged the whole thing in a day or two). So, as such, we wanted to dig in and talk, with some spoilers (clearly labeled for those who haven’t yet finished the show), about what works, and what doesn’t in “House Of Cards.” After we’ve said our piece, and you can do the same in the comments section. Bring on season two.
Kevin Spacey’s best performance in years
When was the last time we really saw Kevin Spacey engaged on screen? There’s been a few nice smaller performances in things like “Telstar” and “Margin Call,” but for the most part, the actor’s career over the last decade or so, since winning his Oscar for “American Beauty,” has been made up of either vanity projects like “Beyond the Sea” and “Pay It Forward,” or paychecks like “Fred Claus” and “Horrible Bosses,” while he focuses his attentions on the Old Vic Theatre in London. So it’s immensely refreshing to see him really back on form as Frank Underwood in the series. It owes a lot to his theatrical performance as “Richard III” (directed by Sam Mendes), that this villainous, Machiavellian figure isn’t just outright scenery-chewing evil; the extended runtime gives Spacey the room to add nuance and pathos (most notably in the eighth episode, which sees Underwood honored at his military alma mater, and proves one of the highlights of the show). It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else play the role, and we can’t wait to see more of him in the second season.
The marriage between Spacey and Robin Wright’s character
One of the best elements of Spacey’s performance, and indeed one of the best elements of the show altogether, comes in the marriage between his Frank Underwood character and his wife Claire (played by Robin Wright). The latter’s equivalent in the original BBC miniseries is virtually a non-factor, but again, the extra running time means she can be fleshed out nicely. Some of this works, some doesn’t (see below), but her scenes really sing when she’s got Spacey to play off. Both parties have affairs in the course of the first season, and there’s an intimation that this isn’t the first time either have strayed, and yet their partnership isn’t just one of convenience and ambition — there’s real love there, a complicated, warts-and-all acceptance of each other as a person, and they’re equally devoted to Underwood’s career rise. Many have namechecked Lady Macbeth in terms of Wright’s character, but the actress (who between this and “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” should work with Fincher wherever possible) gives many extra layers to Claire. And the scenes when the two turn against each other, even if it’s only for a short time, have real sting. Despite the terrible actions of both of them, you feel curiously affectionate towards both of them and their union by the end.
The supporting cast, especially Corey Stoll and Kate Mara
Of course, it’s far from just a two-hander, and there’s hardly a bad performance to be found in the show, and several truly exceptional ones, with a number of fine, undervalued character actors getting a chance to shine. We wish Michael Kelly (“Chronicle“) had more to do as Frank’s chief of staff, but he’s fantastically good when he does. ‘Benjamin Button‘ vet Mahershala Ali gets one of the more interesting roles as protege-turned-lobbyist Remy, and Kristen Connolly shows that “Cabin in the Woods” was only the start of her talents as Christina, the staffer/lover of Peter Russo (Stoll — more on him in a second). But best of all are probably the two most significant roles next to Spacey and Wright. Kate Mara might not be as well-known as her younger sister Rooney, but David Fincher’s clearly on to something with the family, as the undervalued actress is terrific as the ambitious, increasingly ruthless reporter Zoe Barnes. While the character goes to some disappointing places near the end (again, see below), Mara doesn’t strike a bum note at any point. And for every moment of steely ambition, there’s one of vulnerability, even if she’s admirably vanity-free throughout — there’s no desire on her part to make Zoe likable, which is brave and absolutely correct. But the performance to treasure most of all is Corey Stoll as Congressman Peter Russo. Stoll broke through a couple of years back as Ernest Hemingway in “Midnight in Paris,” but gets his best-ever showcase here. Russo is the best-drawn, most interesting character in the show, and Stoll excels at every moment of his arc, from boozy, philandering disaster, to good man trying to stay on the straight and narrow and do the right thing.
Pretty consistent, both stylistically and thematically
While David Fincher was the big name attached creatively, the acclaimed filmmaker only directed the first two episodes, with a fairly motley mix of TV veterans and feature directors taking on the rest of the series. One of the most impressive things about the show is how consistent it feels, long after Fincher’s work is done. The directors, who include James Foley (“Glengarry Glen Ross“), Carl Franklin (“Devil In A Blue Dress”) and even the much-derided Joel Schumacher (“Batman And Robin“), do an excellent job at capturing Fincher’s style and aesthetic, thanks in part to sterling cinematography work by EIgil Bryld (“In Bruges,” “Not Fade Away“) and, for two episodes, “Girls” lenser Tim Ives, plus a top-notch score by Jeff Beal. But it’s not just visually consistent: the show never really has a duff episode (though it also doesn’t always have stellar ones either), a testament to the work of Beau Willimon and his writing staff. Without it ever becoming one-note, the theme of the lengths we’ll go to, and the price we pay for gaining power resonates through every episode — and indeed, virtually every scene — giving it a focus that not every TV series manages.
An authentic setting
The obvious comparison point (along with the more recent primetime soap “Scandal”) to the show for many has been “The West Wing,” the last big TV hit to learn how the sausages are made, politically speaking. It is like that show’s evil cousin, in some ways, but Aaron Sorkin‘s effort was always unapologetically a fantasy, a dream version of how Washington works, and one that rarely set foot outside the White House, presumably thanks to network TV budget limitations. There’s some familiar settings revisited here, but “House of Cards” feels like a more authentic look at Washington, and at the career politician. The congressmen’s need to continually campaign, to satisfy party bosses, lobbyists and constituents at home, all are nicely shown, whether through Underwood or Russo. And it also gets into the rotten, beating heart of D.C. in a way that few cinematic depictions of the state have managed. Willimon’s time as a campaign aide to the likes of Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean is very much evident both in “The Ides of March” and “House Of Cards,” and this authentic insight serves him well.
It manages to stay on the right side of being soapy, for the most part.
You could be forgiven, from that opening scene of Spacey killing a run-over dog while delivering a monologue to camera, into thinking that we’re heading to some quite overblown, soapy places. Indeed, it’s almost unfortunate that the show appeared just as ABC‘s “Scandal,” which similarly deals with dark Washington deeds, turned into a big hit for the network; the comparisons have been flying thick and fast. But actually, while the show has a few credulity-straining out-there twists (see below), it’s mostly admirably restrained and low-key. There are few histrionics or big melodramatic scenes, with the characters generally feeling like human beings rather than plot-delivering devices, all aided by that very Fincher-ish tone, the same one that managed to make the occasionally ludicrous plotting of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” seem viable. It’s also something that’s aided by the binge-watching model; what might have seen slow-paced if unfolding week to week is more easily absorbed when watched two or three (or thirteen) episodes at a time. Essentially, while each episode is relatively self-contained, it’s closer to a long movie than a TV series, and by not needing to stuff every ending, or even ad break, with a twist, Willimon can let the show unfold at its own pace.
The confident ending
**POTENTIAL SPOILERS** And as a further point to that, we kind of loved the ending of the show. Most TV shows even on cable (*cough* “Dexter“) feel obliged to throw in a final twist or cliffhanger to ensure that viewers return for the next season. Thanks to the different model, and the general confidence of the show, “House of Cards” needs no such thing. The final episode sees Francis offered the position of Vice President, which the whole season has been heading towards, but he’s not yet confirmed. Zoe and her press gang pals are starting to smell something amiss, but they’ve got a long way to go. Claire seems to be set on a baby, with or without her husband’s permission. As such, the pieces are set for the next season, and Willimon (and finale director Allen Coulter) are happy to leave off with Frank & Claire sharing a beautifully-shot nighttime jog, as his blackberry, left at home, portends bad tidings to come. It strikes the right balance of feeling low-key, while still making you want season two to come out as soon as possible.
What Doesn’t (Always Work)
The material it gives its female characters
*Some mild spoilers* Given the quality of the performances by the series’ actresses, it’s a shame that it doesn’t always know what to do with them. Interest in the show drops off every time we check in with Claire’s goodwill-sapping non-profit organization, or her affair with photographer Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels), and her gradual realization that she wants a baby is a rather disappointing development. Zoe starts off nicely, but veers wildly between cynicism and naivety, and once she ends her affair with Frank, hardly has anything to do, excluding her romance with fellow journalist Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus), the single least interesting character on the show. And while some nuance develops in her relationship with rival Janine (an underused Constance Zimmer), it doesn’t speak particularly well for the show’s view of women that all the journalists we come across are, or have been, banging their subjects (and that’s even without going into the disproportionate number of prostitutes on the show). Despite Kristen Connolly‘s strong performance, Christina doesn’t get much to do beyond look doe-eyed at Peter — hopefully it’ll pay off in season two. And for the Chief of Staff to the leader of the free of the world, Sakina Jaffrey‘s Linda Vasquez is essentially just another of Frank’s lackey, ready to betray her President at the first chance of getting her son into Stanford. *end spoilers* If we were to given one major note to the show, it would be to amp up the female characters, because for the most part, “House of Cards” feels very much a man’s world.
The 4th wall asides
Arguably the biggest single carry-over from the TV series is the device, introduced in the very first shot, of Spacey’s Frank Underwood addressing the camera. It’s an undeniably theatrical device, originally inspired again by “Richard III” and its soliloquies, and it works reasonably well in some ways; it lets Frank make you complicit in his scheming, can be a handy expositional tool, and gives Spacey room to stretch his theatrical muscles (it’s also deliciously evil and funny at times). But the trouble is that, with the added length and scope of the show, the writers quickly run out of smart ways to use it. As a result, it drops off a good deal as the show goes on, with some episodes barely utilizing it — and when they do, it can be pretty extraneous. Furthermore, it’s hurt by the broader perspective. With the series often departing from Frank’s POV, it makes less sense for it to happen without other characters doing the same thing. It’s not a deal breaker, but we hope that the writers are more careful about its inclusion next time around.
We know that a degree of product placement is an economic necessity for certain shows, especially for one like “House of Cards,” which doesn’t have any other source of ad income. And it’s possible to do it with a degree of ease and self-awareness, though probably more for comedies than dramas (“30 Rock” turned it into a running joke). But the use in “House of Cards” has to be about as egregious an example as we’ve seen. Dell and Apple products fill the frame, an entire (fleeting and inconsequenital) scene is set in front of an Enterprise car rental, and someone comments on the quality of the food they’re eating…in a Pizza Hut. Worst of all is a scene seemingly designed entirely to showcase video games, that goes something like: “We’re three votes short on the education b– wait, is that a PS Vita?” “Yes, the reasonably priced PS Vita. I love playing all the latest PS Vita games on my PS Vita at home.” Like we said, product placement is a necessary evil, but there have to be more seamless ways to intergrate it into the show.
Things sometimes go too easily for Frank
**MILD SPOILERS** However villainous your protagonist, the key to drama is in giving them obstacles to surmount, and the conflict that arises in them. But for Frank Underwood, things seem to go his way a little too often. We know that his scheme is clearly well-thought out, even when its finer details are a little fuzzy, but he’s rarely backed into a corner in a way that makes for truly effective drama. The intention is clearly to make him more and more formidable, the smartest man in whatever room he walks into, but by besting Peter Ross, the President, the teachers union, and everyone in between, so easily, it can threaten to make the show uninvolving. It’s the same issue that Superman’s always had on screens; if he’s invincible, it’s hard to fear that he’ll be beaten. And while Underwood isn’t meant to be a wholly identifiable character, he’s still our hero, and the show can’t just be his plan falling into place. It’s telling that some of his most dramatically potent moments come when he does start to be backed into a corner (by his wife’s betrayal, by an ultimatum in the last quarter of the series), and it’d be nice to see more of that in season two, and maybe a new character to be a more formidable adversary for him to go toe-to-toe with.
The plotting can be far-fetched or contrived
**MAJOR SPOILERS** It’s possible to forgive some of the turns that the show takes — no matter how much you mistrust politicians, it’s hard to believe that one could kill another and mock it up to make it look like a suicide — because of the heightened, Shakespearean world it moves in. But there’s a difference between that (although some Playlisters still found that a step too far), and complete suspension of disbelief, and too often the show falls into the latter category. It starts early on, with a plot revolving around an eye-catching monument that’s caused the death of a local girl because of its resemblance to something naughty. It’s kind of silly peg on which to hang an episode, but it’s the way that it’s blown up to be such a major issue that doesn’t quite ring true. The teacher’s strike is something of a bum note too — an event like that which drags on for a month would be virtually unprecedented, and surely result in virtually career-ending reputations for both the President and Underwood, regardless of the questionable way in which it’s resolved. And the way in which protestors are defused by a gift of barbecue, instantly transforming them into adoring fans, reeks of contempt for the electorate. This kind of plotting continues throughout the series, right down to the key decision of the Vice President to resign his office to run for Governor of his own state. The writers try hard to sell it, but it doesn’t work, and the implausibility undoubtedly hurts the show.
The pace drops off after the big twist
One of our major concerns about the series moving forward is the absence of Peter Russo, a tragic pawn and the single most compelling character in the show so far. Fans of the original miniseries will have seen the move coming (in the BBC version, his cocaine is swapped out for poison, so this actually feels more plausible, luckily), but Stoll’s performance, and the writing for the character, are so good that he’ll undoubtedly be missed. In fact, the evidence is there in the last couple of episodes, which feel like codas to the major event of the season. Having the key turning point of a show occur before a season finale is actually a common device in cable drama (take the last season of “Mad Men,” for instance), but with another 90 minutes of screen time to fill, without an awful lot of incident, “House of Cards” pulls off the structuring trick slightly less well. More importantly, there are the implications moving forward into season two — will the show be lesser for the absence of Stoll? Again, the best way round it would seem to introduce a new character; a true foil for Frank Underwood, and one written with as much complexity as Peter was. Or just bring him back as a wisecracking ghost or something.
Someone get these script notes to the writers stat because quibbles and problems aside, “House of Cards” has us absolutely hooked and we cannot wait for Season 2. Hopefully it only gets better from here on out. Presuming you’ve seen the show, your thoughts on the series thus far?