TV Reviews

TV Review: 'House of Cards' (2013)

Netflix delivers the dirty, nasty, snarling political goods

House of Cards Netflix Review
Photo: NetFlix

I had no idea going into the new Netflix original series "House of Cards" it was only the first season. I assumed, since the BBC original it was based on was only twelve episodes long, and the fact it was based on Michael Dobbs' 1989 novel, a 13-episode arc would cover the entirety of the story. So, as the minutes ticked away in the final episode I kept thinking to myself, "How are they going to wrap this up in the next ten... nine... eight... seven minutes?" The answer, obviously, is they didn't and I'd be lying if the result wasn't a bit of a letdown as the drama in the latter moments wasn't as intriguing as the political back-stabbing that led up to it, but the overall enjoyment level was quite high regardless.

Involving the dirty dealings of backroom politics, the series was developed by playwright Beau Willimon ("The Ides of March") with David Fincher aboard as one of the show's producers and director of the first two episodes. A big name cast and a slew of name directors following in Fincher's wake -- including James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross), Joel Schumacher (Phone Booth), Charles McDougall ("Queer as Folk"), Allen Coulter ("Boardwalk Empire") and Carl Franklin (Out of Time) -- have turned "House of Cards" into something of a must-see event and with Netflix releasing all thirteen, first season episodes at once it's pretty tough not to power through them all at once.

Playing right into Fincher's wheelhouse, it's easy to notice what attracted him to the material in the first place. For the man known for the gruesome, down-in-the-dirt violence of films such as Seven, Fight Club and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, politics are dealt here with just as nasty an edge as any punch thrown or slice of a razor.

Kevin Spacey stars as Frank Underwood, a South Carolina congressman and House Majority Whip. Frank has just been passed over for Secretary of State when he was led to believe the position was his. This proves to be the catalyst for a lengthy process of revenge and power positioning. Within minutes it's quite obvious Frank is not someone you want on your bad side.

Using anyone he can to his advantage, Frank will work the system and the press to get what he wants as the dirtier side of politics comes up roses once you see just how dirty Frank is willing to get.

There are very few likable people to be found in the entirety of this show with Kristen Connolly's character, a secretary for U.S. Representative Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), being one of the few I feel I can't point to as someone you could actually come close to admiring.

Everyone is out for themselves including Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes, an "I'll do anything for a story" journalist for the Washington Herald who soon finds herself working for the highly trafficked political website Slugline.com. Zoe's role in the story feels a lot like the character Rachel McAdams played in State of Play, a go-go blogger, embracing social media who soon finds herself in too deep, but the depths of her drive go down much darker holes.

Then there's the aforementioned Peter Russo with Corey Stoll taking advantage of the limelight and coming out one of the two acting highlights of this first season. Stoll knocked us out with his loud and likable performance as Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris and here he's walking a path filled with drugs, hookers and drink. Obviously once this information comes to Underwood's attention he realizes he has a new card to play.

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of CardsWhile Stoll is great and Spacey is just as good as you'd expect, the knockout of the acting lot is Robin Wright as Underwood's driven and loyal wife, Claire. Her hair cropped short and a steely gaze looking beyond her black mascara, Wright owns this role, delivering a performance that should have casting agents running to get her in their next feature film.

The relationship between Claire and Frank is one unlike any I can remember in recent television or cinematic history. Certainly some of their actions have been seen, but in the way they live with and treat one another is as sickening as it is infectiously entertaining. You could probably argue with someone for hours over whether or not they even love one another and inside that argument -- I'd put money on it -- you will eventually contradict yourself.

"House of Cards" is snarling and nasty and it feels every bit like a Fincher project as cinematographers Eigil Bryld and Tim Ives have captured the same style of soft lighting, monochromatic polish and smooth camera movements Jeff Cronenweth employed in both The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. From a visual perspective, in fact, it's one of the most beautiful television productions I've seen, though the editing in some of the latter episodes is a bit sloppy as narratives told in two different locations begin stepping all over each other.

One risky, but successful, decision was to have Spacey's Underwood break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. A moment where he says, "I fucking hate children," and stares into the camera unsure if we know he's finished or not floored me as much as the moment where he visits Russo's house and sees a game console on the coffee table and asks, "Is that a PS Vita?" His excitement over it is palpable as we occasionally see him at home, unwinding playing a little PlayStation 3 in-between moments of destroying the political careers of those in his way.

The show feels a lot like "The West Wing", but only if "The West Wing" was dipped in acid and all potential character charm was stripped away. Boasting a $100 million production budget, Netflix has certainly shown some guts in premiering such a tonally dark series as their first foray into original programming. The online media giant does have a new season of "Arrested Development" in the works for later this year, which shows they aren't settling for broad, general audience kind of works, instead offering something for the more cerebral viewer, willing to stick it out for several episodes before coming down with a final verdict.

That said, anyone willing to give "House of Cards" a chance will find it rewarding even if you feel you need to scrub yourself clean after you're done watching. I do, however, have some advice...

All 13 first season episodes are being released at once in an unprecedented attempt to cater to society's idea of binge television consumption. Your instinct will be to do just that, and I can't blame you, but just be prepared for an excellent production that makes the defiled political process Willimon put on display in Ides of March look like child's play compared to the lengths Frank Underwood is willing to go. Oh, and also realize this is just a first season and you won't be getting things wrapped up in a nice bow by the end.

The big question now is to wonder how Netflix will determine the show's success? Is it by how many new subscribers come sign up? Can't people just sign up for a free, one month trial subscription, watch the show and bail? How will they handle the DVD and Blu-ray release? Will they remain exclusive? "House of Cards" signals interesting territory for the future of the medium as it poses direct competition to the bundled packaging of cable. Whether it will payoff or prove successful is unlikely to be known for a year or more.

You can find the show on Netflix right here.

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  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

    I'm 4 episodes in and I think it's brilliant. It's my new favorite show.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

      My favorite moment (apart from the opening bit with the dog) is when Spacey leans in to that homeless man and says "No one can hear you. No one cares. Nothing will come of this."

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Xarnis/ Xarnis

        That homeless man scene was great.

        I liked the opening, not because of the dog angle, but his speech about pain. It was fantastic

        • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

          Also, the trailerpark scene.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/jimth123/ james thompson

      You ain't seen nutin yet. :-)

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/G-Man/ G-Man

    Looking forward to checking out. Big props to Netflix for taking a risk with this.

  • adu

    This has been on my to-watch list, but your review has cetainly increased my excitement levels. Like you, I am not much of a tv-show follower Brad, but with the talent involved in this one, it was always hard to keep it off the radar.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Xarnis/ Xarnis

    I'm on episode 5 currently and I hope to feet through 8 today. It fantastic, the cinematography, the acting, the direction, the story; it's all superb.
    Spacey and Wright are both great in their roles and their relationship is fascinating. At times I can't tell if they want to have sex or if they want to kill each other. The rest of the acting is good. The dialogue is great and some if the best I've ever seen in a TV show. The cinematography is beautiful as well.
    I've rated the 4 episodes I've seen, and when I'm done, I'll average them out
    Chapter 1: 4:5/5
    Chapter 2: 4/5
    Chapter 3: 4/5
    Chapter 4: 3.5/5
    I look forward to finishing it.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/CoryS./ Cory S.

    Brad,

    You bring up an excellent point about how the company will measure success and how they'll profit from this.

    I honestly don't have a need for Netflix because of my subscription to HBO, HBO Go, and my local library's deep catalog of DVDs/Blu Rays. But, like HBO, if Netflix continues to churn out original content like this, I might just have to stay as an Netflix subscriber.

    It was inevitable that Netflix would go this route. With the studios playing more hardball with their content being on the service, Netflix had to do something to stay relevant.

    Producing and releasing original programming in this fashion might be the way to do and might change the entire way we consume television programs.

    I find all of this fascinating.

  • Farzan

    I watched all thirteen episodes this weekend, so incredibly addicting. It was produced so well, one of the most cinematic television series to date, though I'm not surprised since such a talented group of people came together for this project

  • http://hypethemovies.wordpress.com Jordan B.

    Breaking the fourth wall hasn't been this fun since "Boston Legal."

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/the%20colleague/ the colleague

    Going by your review, Brad, this looks a lot like a 21st century version of Profit, which itself was also very dirty and nasty, and is often mentioned among shows ahead of its time. It's probably somewhat dated now, but if you have the chance, take a look at the pilot episode and see what you think of it.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AntonioA/ Antonio A

    Brad, I think Eigil Bryld was the cinematographer responsible for most of the episodes, Tim Ives only shoot the last two. They both did a great job though.

    I was just planning to watch 3 or 4 episodes this weekend, but I got hooked and watched the whole thing; I was actually sad in the end because it didn’t run a couple of episodes longer.

    I think the pacing was extremely very well done, and I loved that the writing hit that sweet spot between being clever and sophisticated, but not overly mannered and pretensions like in so many TV shows lately. The score was also very atmospheric and memorable, it reminded me a bit of Reznor’s and Ross’ latest collaborations with Fincher.

    All of the main characters had very interesting arcs, and of course the performances were up to par. I’ve never being a big fan of Spacey, but I found him superlative here, at first his character can appear one note but he does many little things during the whole season that make Frank truly compelling. Robin is also fantastic, and it’s a pleasure to see her work in material worthy of her talents (I wonder if she could be able to take some awards away from Homeland’s Claire Danes). That said, to me Corey Stoll was the clear MVP, fingers crossed his career explodes after this.

    My only big problem with the series is Mara. She’s fine, but to me she doesn’t create an appealing character, and I don’t get what type of performance she wants to get across. Some people may argue that her character is the least interestingly written, and while it may be true, I think she had more than enough material for doing much more.

    Anyway, I hope this becomes a big hit (I also wonder how they will determine the show's success), it was a great first season that deserves to be expanded upon.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Kessler/ Kessler

    Just watched the first episode and thought it was great. Really excited to finish the first season. It's gonna take me a while to finish it, but I'll definitely get to the rest.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Fox/ Fox

    Alright, alright. I'll check it out.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Xarnis/ Xarnis

    Brad, great review! However, I am curious: Of you were to give this a letter grade like you do with movies, what would you give it?

  • Chris138

    Fincher's great, but the most exciting prospect about all of this for me is James Foley's involvement. I think he's one of the most underrated directors of his generation. Glad to see he's involved in something that's getting recognition.

  • Ryan

    I think one of my favorite shots of the whole show is when they show smoke stacks in the foreground and the Capitol Building in the background. A dirty, trashy Washington DC, a polluted city, not one of glitz and glamour.

  • http://hypethemovies.wordpress.com Jordan B.

    Brad: "The big question now is to wonder how Netflix will determine the show's success? Is it by how many new subscribers come sign up? Can't people just sign up for a free, one month trial subscription, watch the show and bail? How will they handle the DVD and Blu-ray release? Will they remain exclusive? "House of Cards" signals interesting territory for the future of the medium as it poses direct competition to the bundled packaging of cable. Whether it will payoff or prove successful is unlikely to be known for a year or more."

    I think this is perhaps the most interesting thing at play on the business end of things with "House of Cards." My initial plan was to use my free trial to "watch the show and bail" as you said Brad, but I have since piggybacked onto my brother's Netflix account instead, which means that with me they aren't gaining a new trial user nor a subscriber.

    My friend, however, intends to use her free trial in a couple of months to watch both "House of Cards" and "Arrested Development," and will likely bail on Netflix after her trial ends. On Netflix's end, it is unfortunate that some will opt for this, but it does at least gain some exposure and there are likely plenty of others who will continue on with their service.

    In the end, I'm sure the big things Netflix is concerned with are, one, popularity -- the number of users who actually stream the show, which is certainly a measure of the show's success -- and two, additional subscribers -- which shows how many new customers "House of Cards" brings in. As for the blu-ray/DVD releases, I don't see how it could benefit Netflix at all to making them subscriber-exclusives, and I don't think they'd have the distribution power to even pull that off on their own and do it successfully. That said, no matter what, this is likely a show I will own on blu-ray once it is released, which is a testament to the watchability and re-watchability of the show given that I rarely buy TV series to own.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/JaneD/ JaneD

    I encourage all you to also check out the original BBC series. It is one of my all time favourite BBC productions. Ian Richardson is equally as brilliant as Kevin Spacey is. The cinematography and production values of the original are not nearly as skilled, but keep in mind the original is 23 years old. (It is available on Netflix here in Canada, not sure about elsewhere.)

    The BBC series also had two sequels - To Play the King and The Final Cut.

    I have only watched the first episode of the Kevin Spacey/Netflix series. It is very, very good but I can't help but compare it to the original, mainly because Ian Richardson's Francis Urquart was so wonderful in his Machiavellian ways.

    • http://hypethemovies.wordpress.com Jordan B.

      Yes, the original series is available on Netflix stateside as well.

  • Jarrod

    Thinking that the 13-part season would encompass an entire series was a mistake on your part. Yep, Ian Richardson appeared in 12 episodes as Frank, but the three seasons have different titles: suggesting that they are sequels to the original miniseries. There's plenty of mileage to the Frank character, and - even if the two series ultimately diverge (which they will have to in the next season) - the Richard III rise and downfall needs to be accomplished on a much larger scale than Frank simply being the chief whip.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/maja/ maja

    Excellent review. I'm a huge Kevin Spacey fan so i will definately check this out at some point. Am currently going through Homeland, then have Game of Thrones on the agenda so may be a while before i get round to this.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

      Do yourself a favor and forget Homeland. Focus on House of Cards & Game of Thrones. It's like comparing a McDonald's ad to a Rembrandt.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/kylejames182/ kyle coley

    I hated the dog part, ( I'm a dog lover) but other than that loving it

  • Nathan

    Even though its on Netflix only do you think it stands a chance at beginning nominated for any Emmys. I think it is a fantastic show and should deserve at least something.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/jimth123/ james thompson

    For the life of me, I cannot figure out the significance of the homeless man throwing back the 20 dollar bill to Claire folded like a bird. Anyone ...

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/jimth123/ james thompson

    What's the point of Frank and Claire sharing the same cigarette in many of the scenes?