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

By Dustin Rowles | TV | February 4, 2013 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | February 4, 2013 |

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.