Politics can be a messy business. Backstabbing, media wars and blackmail are just a few of the common tricks of political intrigue, at least according to the world of Hollywood. Yet, as of late, these ways of Washington have gotten old. The spotlight of quality hasn’t shined on political thrillers recently, but shows like “Scandal” have helped the genre grow. Now the best of scheming television has found a new home online with “House of Cards,” which premiered on Netflix last week.
Kevin Spacey (“Margin Call”) plays Congressman Frank Underwood, a South Carolina Democrat. A smart, cool man, Underwood runs Washington, D.C. There is no question that he is the most powerful person in the district, even more powerful than the president. The congressman and his wife (Robin Wright, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) are one of the most respected and feared power-couples in politics, and anyone who even whispers a threat towards them will find themselves at the bottom of a political well.
The series begins with Underwood being passed over as a candidate for Secretary of State by the president-elect. The congressman doesn’t let his anger get the best of him and instead systematically destroys the political career of the actual candidate, with the help of young journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara, TV’s “American Horror Story”). Trading her journalistic ethics for power, Barnes allows Underwood to use her to write stories that topple Underwood’s colleagues. But Barnes wants to be more than just a puppet and more of a partner — in more ways than one.
Underwood knows he has a strong hold over every person in politics, both inside and outside of Washington. He has a set philosophy on how people work that Spacey wholly embodies.
The ensemble cast of “House of Cards” is phenomenal. Characters connect on every level of the political hierarchy, from simple union protesters to the president’s chief of staff. Emotions often run high, but actors keep lines from sounding too exaggerated. There is a present sense of sophistication in dialogue and acting, and “House of Cards” will intimidate viewers looking for a casual series to zone out to. With enough attention paid, though, “House of Cards” will impress even the most casual of Netflix users.
Calling “House of Cards” the “West Wing” of Congress wouldn’t be far off, but only in terms of high quality production, writing, acting, etc. The series is about dirty, mean tactics — the opposite of the more ethically focused “The West Wing.”
In the style of “The West Wing,” missing even one line from a main character can set back viewers several scenes, if not episodes. Dialogue changes pace constantly as players interact in high-risk situations. Plans hatched by Underwood and others in Congress are elaborate and lofty.
Watching one man in the House of Representatives — of all places — literally influence the country more than the president himself is breathtaking. All the while nothing the congressman does seems too far-fetched; every play is smart, calculated and deliberate toward a goal of absolute power.
The first two episodes of “House of Cards” were directed by David Fincher, who brings his dark, sharp atmosphere from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Social Network” into the series. A beautiful soundtrack carries the mood with an original score that conveys Washington politics.
“House of Cards” is not the first Netflix original series. Netflix produced and released “Lilyhammer” last year, and the much anticipated fourth season of “Arrested Development” is scheduled to premiere on the streaming service later this year. Netflix releases all episodes of its content at once, so the crowd that likes to blow through series in one sitting will be pleased with “House of Cards.”
Better than any other series, “House of Cards” lifts the veil on crafty politics in a most non-moralistic way. Viewers cannot tell whether Underwood is the good guy or just another player in a game with no real winners. “House of Cards” is thoroughly impressive and should be in everyone’s instant queue.