Review: House of Cards

So, Netflix has gotten into the series game, and I must say: Well played, Netflix. Well played.

Revamped and Americanized from the BBC original, the serial revolves around the machinations of Francis Underwood (brilliantly played by Kevin Spacey), one of the most diabolical, scheming, sadistic, hellbent-on-revenge characters one could imagine. That he is a member of the United States Congress only makes the tale more delicious.

Imagine tuning in for the pilot episode, and seeing in the opening scene the calm, dead-eyed Majority Whip outside his house, lured onto the sidewalk by the sound of a dog being hit by a car. Suddenly, and completely without any kind of forewarning, Spacey breaks the actor’s “fourth wall” and addresses the camera directly. He delivers — to your face — a quiet soliloquy about different kinds of pain, while gently strangling the suffering dog to death. Welcome to House of Cards.

The direction of the story is easy to figure out early on: Frank is beyond certain that he will receive the president’s nomination for Secretary of State. When it doesn’t happen, he makes it his life’s mission to 1) climb as high in government as he can, and 2) crush as many skulls as possible on the way up the ladder.

The supporting cast is pretty tasty as well. It’s good to see Robin Wright back at it, playing Underwood’s crafty wife. Although I have a personal aversion to Kate Mara in this show (can’t explain it, really — maybe she just does the smarmy, do-anything-and-I-mean-anything-for-a-story reporter thing too well…or maybe I just think she’s ugly), she is serviceable as Frank’s secret partner in crime. And the crimes pile up, fiends, early and often. Dirty deeds, done dirt cheap.

Frank Underwood is the kind of person you never want to allow into your personal sanctum, for he will find a weakness and exploit it to destroy you for his greater good. And yet, watching him do it over and over to both the innocent and deserving is compelling TV. The jiggle parts (while not completely graphic and certainly not overly frequent or gratuitous, it’s fine with me if they omit the secks altogether, but of course that would presumably limit its mass appeal — have we fallen so far?) are not so compelling.

It is no surprise (but quite impressive) that Netflix went after this show with great enthusiasm, out-bidding juggernaut distributors HBO and Showtime in order to secure the exclusive rights. They may be on to something.

Some critics have a problem with the “fourth wall” trick; they think it cheapens the authenticity. I disagree. Every time Spacey breaks off from the action to address the camera, I get juuuuust a bit creeped out. Like he can really see me. It adds to his overall persona; his slight imbalance, leaning ever so gently towards sociopathy — even psychosis. Which, of course, makes it all the more crazy, since the man’s influencing decisions in Congress. Whoa.

So I say (and I think RtB fiend Tom Hanks would agree) it’s a smart, interesting effort, and worth checking out. All 13 episodes of the first season are available, and have been since the get-go (another genius move on Netflix’s part). We wait a year for Season 2.

On the Rat-O-Meter scale of five cheeses, I give House of Cards:

6 thoughts on “Review: House of Cards

  1. Will

    The ways that Frank talk to the audience remind me of a Shakespearean soliloquy. Definitely some shades of Richard the Third in there.

    Reply
  2. Tom Hanks

    I most definitely agree! Great review Fink!

    I particularly like this show because of its tone, which is a lot more cool and for lack of a better word, reserved. No shaky cam “tension” building, no over the top music, and all the more disconcerting for it. The style itself is kind of like a sociopath stare. Kubrickian.

    Frank may be the lead and should be but I found myself being actually afraid of his wife. I thought the polar ends of her humanitarian efforts and smiles and the somewhat brutal actions she takes (maybe not compared to frank) more disturbing. She struck me as devoid of any morality. Frank seems to know what is right and wrong, he just doesn’t care, whereas she seems completely unfamiliar with it. Even her kindnesses seem like an experiment to see what it might feel like to do something nice. I think she is the true sociopath of the show and what scares me is the realism of her character because I know these people are out there. Perhaps it only seemed like that because Franks 4th wall breaking asides made him more relatable, but I kind of doubt she would even have the ability to self examine enough to be able to do this.

    I thought all of the actors were good, except for the president maybe. He seemed a little bland and lacking in the necessary charisma you would expect him to have. I didn’t find the reporter lady to ugly haha, but of course I agree that her actions were pretty ugly. I didn’t expect to ever like Mr Russo when they introduced him but they did a nice job with his story arc.

    Back to the look of this show….I think this is one of the first things ever shot with a Red Epic camera where they actually knew what they were doing. For history on that… Red is a company started by a crazy billionaire who sold his fortune he made creating Oakley sunglasses and decided to start a camera company from scratch. I remember the day they announced it about 6 years ago as I happened to be on the same message board at the time. It was considered a joke for awhile…the idea of making a digital movie camera that would be as good or better than film…but now seven years later…I would say they have done it. This is one of the first things I’ve viewed that was shot on a digital camera that didn’t just attempt to emulate what is “film-look” but forged ahead into the territory of what digital technology might be able to accomplish. The resolution even on netflix I thought was pretty stunning. The color was amazing…especially for a show that is a lot of drab greys, blues, and yellows. I think this is one of the best examples of digital photography so far and in a way that is inherent to itself, aesthetically. Things need to evolve and I for one think its pretty col so see moving images that have the resolution and color fidelity of a vogue fashion shot. I mean that in a good way…they shoot fashion mag shots with ridiculously high resolution cameras. Of course the whole thing isn’t like that…but there were moments I was really impressed with.

    Sorry to ramble about that so much haha. Anyway…great show….not Breaking Bad of course…but its got its own flavor…and I dug it so far. Looking forward to the next season!

    Reply
    1. Rat Fink Post author

      Once again, your comments are a clinic! Thanks for sharing your input — I hoped you’d give your take.

      I hear you about Frank’s wife — there’s often nothing behind her eyes, which is troubling (and effective). Good call also on the shallowness of her character. I remember being particularly bothered by the ease with which her character fired her whole office staff.

      And I had no idea about the whole camera issue; I will have to revisit the episodes and take notice of the differences.

      Reply

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