“House of Cards” Season One Review
Netflix, Kevin Spacey and David Fincher Blow the Lid Off Modern Television
Netflix made television history (does streaming online count?) with the release of its first original series, “House of Cards,” on Feb. 1, 2013. All 13 episodes of the political drama/thriller’s first season were available for instant streaming through Netflix. Netflix also prepares to do this again for the series’ second thirteen-episode season. Salon.com reported that Netflix used “Big Data” to manipulate viewers into watching the program due to Netflix’s market research on what subscribers want to watch. The result: remake a British political thriller starring Kevin Spacey and directed by David Fincher. I don’t know the specifics of Netflix’s research, but I can say for myself that I know I relish David Fincher and Kevin Spacey films (especially their collaboration in Seven). While the Salon.com article written by Andrew Leonard is largely hesitant, all I can say is, “Thank you, Netflix, for making me this show that I enjoy.”
Kevin Spacey stars (and produces) as our protagonist(ish), House Majority Whip Frank Underwood. Underwood is a democrat from South Carolina and a ruthless SOB. Frank’s love affair with speaking to the camera is my favorite aspect of this series. Underwood pulls himself out of conversations to speak to the camera or when he’s momentarily alone or walking. Keeping the viewer in Frank’s head through these brief monologues is a dynamic technique that allows Kevin Spacey to thoroughly reveal the true nature of his character as well as allowing Spacey the opportunity to show us what he really can do. His intense, self-motivating speeches and quick winks at the lens keep the viewer from wholly hating Frank. He’s a tough character to root for but with Spacey mastering the role; it seems unnatural to root against him. I certainly wouldn’t bet against him. I expect him to nab the Golden Globe next January.
Robin Wright co-stars as Claire Underwood. Despite playing Frank’s wife, Claire is so much larger in the picture of this series. It’s refreshing to see the female lead in a political thriller not be so blindly devoted to her husband. In many ways, she is potentially more terrifying than Frank. Claire runs her own organization and is more devoted to Frank’s career than I care to spoil within this piece. Robin Wright shows from her first scene that casting her was perfect — combining the role of a kind, loyal politician’s wife with the harsh, icy demeanor of a shrewd business woman.
Corey Stoll plays Junior Congressman Peter Russo, a democrat from Pennsylvania’s 1st district. I’ve enjoyed following Stoll’s career after his turn as Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Congressman Russo is a character tailor-made for television: he’s a drunk, drug-addicted, philandering, divorced Congressman with two small children. On top of everything, he’s dating his assistant (Kristen Connolly- Cabin in the Woods). Russo and Underwood’s arrangement is the driving force of the show, steering the plot deeper off into the abyss of Washington, D.C.
Kate Mara (Shooter, Iron Man 2) assumes the role of Washington Herald journalist Zoe Barnes. Barnes is a young reporter stuck on the D.C. metro beat who has dreams of furthering and building her journalism career — and she won’t be stopped no matter what she has to do to achieve that. Barnes’ character is what keeps the show going. While Russo and Underwood’s arrangement is the driving force of the show, Barnes’ arrangement with Frank is what keeps us paying attention — making a new bargain every other episode in order to further each other’s career.
Michael Kelly is Frank’s right hand man, Doug Stamper. Kelly’s scenes as Stamper are always the most fascinating to watch. Frank can’t obviously be seen doing or attached to all of his dirty dealings — this is where Stamper comes into vision. When Stamper isn’t holding down the office in Frank’s absence, he’s usually on an errand to a shady side of town. Whenever Frank has an urgent, pressing issue that needs to disappear, Stamper shows up and makes it all go away. He keeps the boogeyman (nosy journalists, in this case) from getting to the Underwoods.
The series is excellently produced right down to the opening titles’ sped-up shots of Washington, D.C played over a cool, singular and tonal track. The most interesting aspect of the show to follow is the different styles of directing throughout the series. David Fincher directed the first two episodes and I must admit they’re my favorite two episodes without bias. Fincher expertly blends Frank’s monologues with the fast-paced plot and this is why I prefer the Fincher-helmed episodes the best. That isn’t to say the other directors don’t accomplish anything either. Joel Schumacher, James Foley and Allen Coulter are other notable directors for “House of Cards.” I must admit my least favorite episodes (7 and 8) were helmed by Charles McDougall because Frank’s monologues are mainly suppressed. I believe that is the only thing keeping my review of this series below five full stars.
From start to finish, “House of Cards” is a thrilling political drama. The first two Fincher-directed episodes set the tone for a dark, corrupt Washington D.C. that show-runner Beau Willimon chose to focus on for the 2011 film, The Ides of March, which he co-wrote based on his political play, Farragut North. Netflix experienced immense success following the release of the show, vindicating their use of market research. I have no doubts that Netflix’s next television endeavor involving market research will be a smash-hit — mostly because that next endeavor is resurrecting season four of “Arrested Development.” Coming your way in May.