House Of Cards debuts tomorrow on Netflix. The entire series will be available from day one. This review looks at the first two episodes, the only ones previewed for critics. We will have weekly reviews of each episode of House Of Cards on Fridays. If you want to discuss the series as a whole, this is the place to do it, and Todd VanDerWerff will have his thoughts on the full series in this review once he finishes watching it. We will tweet another link to the review when those thoughts are up.
Netflix’s remake of the British miniseries (itself based on a novel) House Of Cards is at all times a struggle between the virtues of the overripe and the virtues of the spare. It’s a show where the direction—in the first two episodes, it’s by Academy Award nominee David Fincher, one of the handful of people with a legitimate claim to the best director of his generation—is at once haunting and sparse, suggesting without really coming out and saying everything about this world of moral depravation and power lust that the characters live in. Yet at the same time, the scripts (from Beau Willimon, who adapted the show for the States, mostly just by keeping the tropes of the original, then building an original story around them) are filled with the sort of overripe, hammy dialogue that star Kevin Spacey always relishes sinking his teeth into. It’s an interesting mix that doesn’t quite work in the first two episodes screened for critics, but if the show ever figures out the perfect mix of these elements, watch out. It could very easily become one of the very best serialized stories out there.
Picked up by Netflix after several other networks expressed interest in it, House Of Cards also has the unfair burden of being the first really big standard bearer for the idea that TV has moved past the idea of “timeslots” and “regularly scheduled programming. Netflix head Reed Hastings talks at length in this GQ article about how people want what they want and want it now, and he’s hoping to leverage that impulse into a bunch of people who will watch House Of Cards over a long, bleary-eyed weekend. For Netflix, this seems to suggest that Friday will be the day to make big releases, just like a movie studio. Also left unsaid in this is that fans of Netflix’s series will have to wait to watch new installments between seasons, just like with a traditional TV network, and those waits will be longer and, presumably, more painful. A later portion of the article talks with programming head Ted Sarandos, who questions why we even need to have standard episode lengths. Why couldn’t one episode of House Of Cards be 150 minutes long and another 15, if the story dictated it?
That’s all well and exciting and good, but House Of Cards is also pretty palpably just another prestige TV show. Some of this stems from the fact that it’s been sold to TV networks in other countries and, thus, has to conform to the usual episode lengths as a result. But it’s also fairly clearly written around the serialized drama template that’s become so rigid and popular since the days of The Sopranos. There’s an overarching story—in this case, stemming from how Spacey’s character attempts to rebound from being snubbed for the Secretary of State job in an incoming presidential administration—but each episode presents a smaller problem the character has to solve on his way to that goal. If you’ve watched a lot of TV, you know that formula like the back of your hand. There’s a comfort to it, but it can also lead to the series being overfamiliar in places.
Spacey plays Frank Underwood, the series’ version of the original’s Francis Urquhart. He’s the House Majority Whip, representing a district in South Carolina, and the show is rare among modern political series in actually portraying its characters fairly clearly as Democrats, though they span the entire breadth of that party’s positions, from far-left liberals to moderates who’d rather not rock the boat too much. (Weirdly, the Republican party doesn’t seem to exist in these first two episodes, outside of a few mentions here and there. Unlike in our real world, the Democrats can act essentially with impunity on House Of Cards.) Like most antiheroic series leads of the past decade, Frank has his goals constantly in sight, and he’s willing to do just about anything to get there. He sinks his teeth into problems, exploits connections to get what he wants, and skirts the lines of morals and ethics in the process of doing so. Blah, blah, blah. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
This formulaic center ends up being the worst thing about House Of Cards. There is, at times, a very Mad Libs quality to the proceedings. Frank feels like a rough gloss on dozens of other protagonists, even if he’s drawing directly from an original source, and it’s almost comical how little he runs into resistance in the show’s first two episodes. It’s fun to watch Kevin Spacey scheme, sure, and there are some good scenes with some of the other characters, but this is also a show where Frank comes up with plans, and they work almost too easily. Sure, they’re plans that are kind of fun to watch because you can find rough analogues in the real world—a storyline involving policy in regards to the Israeli/Palestinian situation feels like it could be drawn from real life—and there’s every expectation that things will get harder for Frank in the future. But this still feels like a very basic, by the numbers approach to this kind of story. We’ve seen this all dozens of times before, and House Of Cards has yet to distinguish itself in ways that don’t involve Spacey.
The show is also trapped by the fact that it has something like two dozen regular characters. Although Frank is decidedly the center of the show, the series also feels the need to service everybody else who has even a tangential connection to the main storyline, and that means time gets spent with characters who are not immediately interesting or intriguing. A lot of time. It’d be one thing if we were slowly getting bits and pieces of information about how these characters relate to Frank and help him get done what he needs to get done, but we’re, instead, supposed to be interested in the relationship between another Congressman and his secretary, just because they’re on screen. Similarly, there’s lots of time spent with Frank’s wife (played by the great Robin Wright), and her storyline—something about cutting the staff at the charity she works for—doesn’t have any real depth or intrigue. Every time the camera cuts there, it’s a bit of a snooze. No show can develop every character in its first two episodes, but House Of Cards acts as if it already has, and we’re already interested in these people. Sure, that could pay off down the line, as an unusual way of building characters, but it creates a hole for the show to start out in.
Yet House Of Cards is also compulsively watchable, slow-moving and poorly structured as it is. A lot of this is due to Spacey, who commands the center of the screen in a way that reminds you why he’s such an acclaimed actor. He plays Frank with a deliberate hamminess—his Southern accent is something to behold—and he seems to be the only one in the show who understands that the overripe nature of the dialogue requires a bit of a wink. The series also gets some great work out of Kate Mara as Zoe, a cub reporter for the fictional Washington Herald, who finds herself in the right dress at the right place at the right time. When the series features these two actors together on screen, it rights itself and becomes everything it could be.
And if nothing else, there’s the visual template Fincher has set out for the show. Fincher tends to work well with hyper-literate scripts, and though Willimon too often spells out the subtext, he’s also got a fine sense of rat-a-tat dialogue, which Fincher pulls off with panache. And that’s to say nothing of the way that Fincher provides subtle little visual cues throughout the first two episodes, cues that unite the characters in interesting, unexpected ways. (Watch these first two episodes for all of the ways he uses the idea of water and boats cutting through that water.) The direction here isn’t as flashy as some of the stuff Fincher has done on the big screen—how could it be?—but there’s a wonderful visual sense that makes everything happening, no matter how far flung, feel of a piece. The first two episodes of House Of Cards certainly leave the viewer wanting more, but they also feel curiously undernourished, driven by scripts that leave too little to the imagination and treat the audience’s interest in antiheroes as a fait accompli. But so long as Fincher, Spacey, and Mara are at the show’s center, there’s enough here to entertain.