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"House of Cards" Review: The Show Is a Success, But What About the Strategy?

By Dustin Rowles | TV Reviews | February 4, 2013 | Comments ()


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The $100 million series "House of Cards," directed and produced by David Fincher, and starring Kevin Spacey, is a huge gamble by Netflix because it's the first series with a large promotional push in which they're releasing all the episodes at once. I was dubious about the success of the strategy, and some are already arguing that Netflix blew it because the strategy led to a proliferation of spoilers on Twitter and Facebook over its first weekend of release.

Personally, after viewing the entire series the way it was meant to be viewed -- bingewatching over the course of two nights -- I don't know that spoilers are realistically a major detriment to the series. There's really only one major surprise in a series that mostly succeeds based on smart writing, clever plotting, and some ace performances from Kevin Spacey and, especially, Robin Wright.

"House of Cards" gets off to a rocky start in the first two episodes, which were directed by David Fincher. Kevin Spacey, who plays Francis Underwood, the Majority Whip of the United States Congress, has a Carolina accent that's a little too forced and hammy, and the way he breaks the fourth wall in every other scene grows obnoxious quickly. The series opens on the day of the inauguration for President Walker (President Walker), and Spacey is learning from the Chief of Staff (Sakina Jaffrey) that he's being passed over for the position of Secretary of State, despite promises before the election that he'd be given the seat.

It's from that loss that Spacey's Francis Underwood sets up a long con to both exact his revenge and climb the political ladder. To do so, he enrolls the help of an upstart reporter, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), with whom he will have an affair, and a Pennsylvania Congressman, Peter Russo, who Spacey will use as a pawn to rise the ranks. There are also a number of scandals and other moving parts working in the background of all this, including his own wife's (Robin Wright) job as the head fo a non-profit organization.

There are a bevy of compelling characters in "House of Cards," but the marriage between Underwood and Claire is at the forefront of everything. Theirs is a political marriage, but there's also a deep love between the two figures, who both work for and against each other in a game of clashing ambitions. Robin Wright is absolute perfection: cold, powerful, and sexual, but also capable of putting on the stand-by-your-man facade when it's called for. Meanwhile, Spacey -- who sports heavy bags under his eyes and a hangdog face - munches on scenery in truly delicious fashion, combining iterations of his American Beauty character and his role as the boss in Swimming with Sharks.

Ultimately, too, "House of Cards" becomes exactly the kind of series that plays well on Netflix: It's entertaining as hell, but it's also addictive. It gets inside your head, and you find yourself trying to stay ahead of Underwood, to predict his next move in the game of political chess. Yet the series is also episodic enough to maintain our interest in the short-term: Each episode is like a small political caper, a strategic move that buoys Underwood to the next stage of his scheme.

Comparisons to Kelsey Grammer's "Boss" abound, and they are apt: The two shows are structurally similar, centering on figures who have far more power than their positions would suggest, and both wield it ruthlessly for their own political gain. The major complain about "Boss," however, was that it would've been a much better show if Grammer's character weren't saddled with a terminal disease. "House of Cards" has no such baggage, and it's not as overwrought as "Boss" could sometimes be, either. Moreover, the characters in "House of Cards" are more palatable; they are unlikable, but not loathsome, and Spacey's Underwood is a charismatic anti-hero who we only hate periodically.

It has its flaws, to be sure: Underwood never stops speaking to the camera (although, it's less grating in subsequent episodes), and there are a few subplots that feel extraneous (House of Cards is two seasons of 13 episodes apiece, while the British series upon which it was based was only seven episodes in all, and several of the storylines feel tacked on).

Overall, however, my biggest issue with House of Cards is something akin to a backhanded compliment. Last week, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, in defending his decision to release all episodes at once, argued that a television series should be enjoyed like a novel: You shouldn't have to wait a week in between chapters. My problem with House of Cards is that it's a novel split into two parts, and after immersing myself into the world of the D.C. politics, after watching 13 episodes in 26 hours, I was still anxious for more. No release date that I have found has been set for the second act, so I have no idea how long we'll have to wait to finally get some resolution. That's frustrating, although it should provide enough impetus for most to continue with their Netflix subscriptions until season chapter arrives.



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Comments Are Welcome, Douches Are Not


  • F'mal DeHyde

    I'm only on ep 1 but I'm really enjoying Spacey looking at the camera, it makes me feel like I'm right there with him and he's sharing his dirty little secrets with me.

  • blarghl

    I like to think of this as a sequel to Ferris Bueller's Day Off set way in the future, where Ferris takes his natural talent for manipulating people to its logical conclusion.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    Yeah, I like that.

  • anka

    Albiet I'm only on episode 7 or 8, but I like this idea of business strategy, I think they'v conducted loads of surveys, they also have a fuck ton of data on how their users consume digital media. And most likely their results have been showing that their consumer base devours the material, a.e. watching them in a big swoop over a couple of days. I personally think that this is a very expensive experiment based on solid data that will either fail or sail. Depending on the success of this experiment, we'll maybe see a shift in release schedules in digital distribution.

    But this model will also make series that use this format unable to garner traction via word of mouth and social media, no hype between episodes nor any discussion about what will happen next that would increase the hype(it's all about the hype am I rite?). When the next season finally arrives, people would generally just remember the broad strokes of the story, and that might be sufficient, but the small details, that might kept people interested in the series would be forgotten.

    Anyhow, I hope that Netflix will release data(doubtful), and either way I will try and follow what happens next. If we'll see a change in release schedules in the future we can regard this as a success, maybe we'll see that companies release more episodes during weekends and they further on can discuss them during the week, who knows, but I find this extremely interesting(as you'v may have noticed based this long post and stopped reading the whole post, for those who read it all, tryffel cakes).

  • QueeferSutherland

    I'm nine episodes in and really enjoying the show thus far. I share your skepticism on the release strategy. As a viewer, I quite like being about the devour four or five episodes at a time, for while they dont really end on cliffhangers, there's enough going on that much self control is required to prevent you from clicking the "play next episode" button.

    However, the business case is a little less clear. Why make your $100 million signature series available like this? I realize that most people don't cancel a subscription to something once they've gone down that road (yeah you got me, Spotify), but getting three months out of those who want to watch the series immediately seems like the better fiscal play. It'll be interesting to see how (or if) Netflix releases the metrics.

  • blarghl

    I'm thinking it was to get people to sign up for a free trial and binge through this, then start browsing the other shows they have available and end up renewing at the end of the month

  • gunter

    I'm still waiting for Netflix to follow up on LilyHammer - that show was awesome

  • TherecanbeonlyoneAdmin

    Also, I don't think that having to wait for another season after gorging on all thirteen episodes is really an issue. In these days of split seasons and more than year long hiatuses it's more the norm than not. At least for the stuff that I watch.

  • Semilitterate

    I'm still watching it at a one episode per day rate ( I actually have a life), so the lack of spoilers in the article was welcome. IMHO, Spacey can do little wrong and I enjoy the asides; they just drive home the idea that allpoliticians are shit (I think it is genetic) Looking fowrard to rest of the current episodes and the "second season whenever it gets here.

  • Blake

    1) To echo Dustin - When will Season 2 air?

    2 ) I was uncertain about Claire on more than a few occassions and often wondered while watching if her character was going to go all Betty Draper in Season 1 of Mad Men. Thankfully that isn't the case.

    3) It does start to drag a bit around episode 10 (Even with Walkers interesting past reveal).

    4)Great performances by the cast all around and I wish thank Fincher for introducing us to Rachel Brosnahan who is gorgeous.

    5)It's got Sandrine Holt (who I have had a crush since Once a Thief).

  • blake

    *Sorry not Walkers but Underwoods in point 3.

  • Mr_Zito

    President Walker is playing President Walker? Awesome!

  • Bert_McGurt

    Serendipity has truly smiled on David Fincher this day.

  • TherecanbeonlyoneAdmin

    I really enjoyed the show (though I'm only on episode 12). Most of your criticisms do have merit but I always enjoy the asides to the camera. I also really liked the release of all thirteen episodes at once. I ploughed through almost all of them yesterday and even shut the Supper Bowl off to go back to them.

  • Candee

    I made the mistake of thinking it wasn't going to be all that great, so I put it on while I was doing homework. Now I can't stop. I also had no idea what it was about going in.

    I honestly don't mind breaking the fourth wall. It's not an all the time thing, and sometimes it's just a look to the camera instead of speaking. It's already. Doesn't bother me at all.

  • ruby

    I too enjoyed it (and watched it relatively quickly over the weekend.) Though I must admit that I didn't have plans to watch either the Super or supper bowl.

  • BWeaves

    But does he have any Grey Poupon?

    How does this compare to the original British miniseries that starred Sir Ian Richardson and Susannah Harker (Jane from THE Pride and Predjudice version)?

    I'm not sure there can be spoilers for something that's a remake of a 1990 show, unless they've changed the plot significantly.

  • linnyloo

    Kevin Spacey is starting to look like Gene Hackman...

  • Bert_McGurt

    Must be all the Luthoring.

    On the plus side, the casting for Wes Anderson's new prequel Tenenbaum: The Coronation of Royal just got a hell of a lot easier.

  • Lyla

    I'm not sure how I felt about it. It was about half great and half super boring? I had a lot of problems with. It felt like the journalism storyline was forgotten about in the last half of the series, even though it was one of the most interesting. And then there's the fact that Underwood is a piece of human shit (considering what he does to Russo). Not even in a so-bad-it's-good ways, he's just garbage. And the timeline was confusing as well, I have no idea how much time the 13 episode spanned. 1 year? 3?

    But......it's also good?

  • blarghl

    I just finished episode 11, and I think at this pace the first season will probably end up covering one year. It starts off after the president gets elected, and in the last episode or two I watched they mentioned it was two months until the PA governor's election

  • God Of Bal-Sagoth

    Really, I just want to know if Kate Mara's expression ever changes. Because I've seen her in a half-dozen projects and she always has the exact same blank look.

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