Netflix snaps up dense, dystopian British miniseries ‘House of Cards’
Adaptation of British miniseries certain to snare American audience
Published: Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 01:02
“House of Cards” is a big gamble for Netflix. On Feb. 1, Netflix released all 13 episodes of the show’s first season to its subscribers. Netflix is making significant strides to produce more and more original content. The much−discussed fourth season of Fox’s beloved sitcom, “Arrested Development,” is set to air this May and is one of Netflix’s most high−profile initiatives. Netflix’s main concern is whether or not people subscribe to Netflix, rather than whether they actually tune into the shows. And Netflix needs shows like “House of Cards” to help bring in those extra subscribers.
Still, if future endeavors are as addictive as “House of Cards,” Netflix need not worry about viewers tuning out after a few episodes. “House of Cards,” it seems, was made for binge−watching.
The series is an adaptation of a British miniseries of the same name that aired in 1990. This version is set in present day Washington, D.C., and its protagonist is Francis “Frank” Underwood (Kevin Spacey), a Democrat from South Carolina’s fifth congressional district and the House Majority Whip. When he is overlooked for Secretary of State by newly inaugurated 45th president Garrett Walker (Michael Gill), Underwood initiates a calculated, intricate course of revenge.
Spacey plays Underwood with delicious cunning. His southern drawl is honeyed and smooth, but underneath that comforting charm he is harsh and exacting. He has a remarkable power to control all the different players in his world and play them like pawns in a game of chess. He stays behind the scenes, carefully coordinating every detail, exploiting every weakness and pulling every string he can get his hands on.
Every so often, Frank will turn to the camera and address the viewer in an aside, giving small introductions to characters or commentary: “I love her more than sharks love blood,” he says about his wife, Claire (Robin Wright). It is an interesting technique, and one that could play very poorly — see: season one of “Sex and the City” (1998−2004). But the potentially off−putting style ends up being incorporated naturally and quite seamlessly. Stylistically, it was a risky choice. In anybody else’s hands, it might have fallen flat, but Spacey pulls it off with panache.
Underwood’s two most important relationships are with two very different women. His wife Claire is an ice queen who runs a nonprofit with a cool and unforgiving hand. Her office, with its pristine white desks and stately marble columns, appropriately conveys her crisp, punishing attitude. Her relationship with Frank makes for a dynamic centerpiece to the show — they control their respective worlds, but at home seem to be in many ways a normal married couple. Underneath the semblance of normalcy, however, there is a ripple of something almost sinister. There’s an unspoken deal between the two, which creates the sense that their marriage is more partnership than love.
In the first few episodes, Frank comes in contact with Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a journalist at the fictional newspaper The Washington Herald. She’s young, pretty and ambitious — she wants to be writing about politics but is stuck in the metro section. She brazenly shows up at the Underwood’s Washington, D.C. home and negotiates a deal with him, thus making her another tool in his wheelhouse. As her secret with Underwood propels her to new heights, Zoe is confronted with new challenges and new relationships to negotiate. She is smart and eager, but her ambition, like nearly everything else in the show, seems to have a dark underbelly. We don’t quite know how far she will go or what moral compass directs her behavior. And as she gets more and more involved with Frank, the answer to that question becomes increasingly ambiguous.
Corey Stoll appears as Congressman Peter Russo. Though Underwood has caught wind of Russo’s indiscretions, Russo allies himself with Underwood and becomes slavishly obedient to him in order to save his career, much to the disgust of his girlfriend−cum−staffer Christina Gallagher (Kristen Connolly). Other supporting characters include no−nonsense, tough−as−nails White House Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey) and Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Underwood’s obliging chief of staff.
David Fincher directed the first two episodes of “House of Cards” and, with his talented cast and sharp writing, he did a masterful job. But with the show’s ominous tone, it is the anti−”West Wing” — a far cry Aaron Sorkin’s world of idealism and grand speechmaking. This is backstabbing at its very worst — and if Netflix gets what it wants, viewers will eat it up like cake.