A look at Netflix's revolutionary House of Cards -- based on watching all 13 Season 1 episodes
02/06/13 10:49 AM
Conniving couple: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright star in House of Cards. Netflix photo
Premiering: All 13 Season 1 episodes were made available on Friday, Feb. 1st to Netflix subscribers
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, Michael Kelly, Corey Stoll, Kristen Connolly, Michael Gill, Sakina Jaffrey, Constance Zimmer, Dan Ziskie, Ben Daniels, Mahershala Ali, Rachel Brosnahan, Reg E. Cathey, Sebastian Arcelus, Gerald McRaney, Al Sapienza
Produced by: David Fincher, Beau Willimon, Kevin Spacey, Eric Roth, Joshua Donen, Dana Brunetti, Andrew Davies, Michael Dobbs, John Melfi
By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on twitter
Netflix's unprecedented way of presenting its first original series, House of Cards, is optimum for viewers but something of a stacked deck for reviewers.
All 13 commercial-free episodes of Season 1 became available to subscribers on Feb. 1st. TV critics were provided with the first two episodes before that date, and many of the early, largely favorable reviews are based on what amounts to a sneak peek of this twisting, turning Washington, D.C.-based serial drama. The ensemble cast is headed by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as a power couple who experience an unexpected outage before quickly plotting their revenge.
But does House of Cards deliver throughout these first 13 hours? And does the Season 1 finale provide enough of a payoff to bring viewers back for what's planned as a climactic 13-episode Season 2?
Holding off until consuming the entire meal, I can answer in the affirmative. Yes and yes. And bravo for a mostly spot-on maiden voyage from a "network" that also intends to offer its upcoming originals in one big gulp. That includes 14 new episodes of Arrested Development, coming this May. All at once.
Back to House of Cards, adapted but thoroughly modernized and re-plotted from a 1990 BBC miniseries of the same name. Both works are based on the novel by Michael Dobbs. Its head executive producer, David Fincher, also directed the first two episodes. His feature film credits include Seven, Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network and most recently, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Handsomely mounted and garnished with some big, bold opening theme music, Netflix's version of House of Cards is anything but a cheap-looking, abbreviated collection of "webisodes." Each episode runs from 45 minutes to an hour, with the opening credits sometimes appearing right up-top and other times after a scene-setter. For those not "power-watching" during a short period of time, House of Cards might have been helped by a standard "Previously On" summation of recent events. But it's not that big a deal.
Spacey plays House Majority Whip Francis "Frank" Underwood, a 22-year congressional veteran who's expecting to be named Secretary of State after throwing his weight behind Democratic president-elect Garrett Walker (Michael Gill).
Underwood regularly talks directly to the camera, as did nefarious "conservative chief whip" Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) in the British version.
"My job is to clean the pipes and keep the sludge moving," Spacey's Underwood says. "But I won't have to be a plumber much longer. I backed the right man."
Instead he's double-crossed and passed over, with the new president deeming him more valuable as a congressional deal-maker with the moxie to ram through a big education reform bill in the first 100 days of the Walker administration. Underwood and his independent but strongly supportive wife, Claire (Robin Wright), immediately decide on a stealth plan to make him the next president. Their planned pathway encounters a few detours en route, but Frank is ever adaptable to improvised deception when needed.
Claire also ruthlessly heads the Clean Water Initiative, an ostensibly non-profit organization that at times needs a helping hand from her husband. Theirs is a childless marriage of love and opportunism. Each knows the score, and Claire is accustomed to looking the other way when Frank seizes a sexual opportunity to further their ambitions. Besides, she has an old flame of her own, prestigious photographer Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels).
Politicians aren't the only power-mongers in House of Cards. Young, driven Zoe Barnes (Kate Mora), a reporter for The Washington Herald, aggressively pursues a relationship with Frank in ways that initially pay off for both of them. She later winds up at Slugline.com, a website dedicated to getting scoops by hook or crook.
Interestingly, The Washington Post wanted no part of House of Cards. But CNN certainly did. Real-life personalities John King, Candy Crowley and Soledad O'Brien are among those with cameos in early episodes. O'Brien's is an extended one in Episode 3, even though her early morning venue, CNN's Starting Point, is being scrapped by new CNN head Jeffrey Zucker. Sometimes it's tough to stay up to date.
George Stephanopoulos and his ABC This Morning program also make more than a token cameo appearance in Episode 2. Bill Maher and Dennis Miller are much briefer seen as themselves in later episodes.
Spacey and Wright propel House of Cards with sure-footed performances that get even stronger down the stretch. But the revelation is Corey Stoll as self-destructive Pennsylvania congressman Peter Russo. Divorced with two pre-teen children, he's addicted to alcohol, drugs, power and an occasional prostitute. Which means he's perfect for manipulation as part of the Underwoods' grand plan.
Stoll, who had a lead role in NBC's quickly canceled Law & Order: L.A., is letter-perfect in this pivotal role. But his performance in Episode 11 alone should be enough to garner him an Emmy nomination. It's an extraordinarily powerful hour, with Spacey's Underwood also rising to the occasion of his foulest deed.
Some developments in House of Cards can be more than a bit telegraphed. Others fall perhaps a little short of adding up, although in Washington nothing is really implausible.
Spacey's talk-to-the-camera asides could be subtracted without any undue damage. But they're fairly infrequent and do have their crystallizing moments. Including:
***"What am I, a whore in post-war Berlin, salivating over free stockings and chocolate?"
***"If you can humble yourself before them, they will do anything you ask" (referring to the denizens of the small South Carolina town where Underwood was raised).
***"There's no better way to overcome a trickle of doubt than with a flood of naked truth."
Although ever amoral and carnivorous at crunch time, Underwood also is subject to being humanized on occasion. Episode 8 is built almost entirely on a semi-sentimental side trip to the South Carolina military academy where he came of age. They're dedicating a library in his name, and at times it almost seems as if he deserves it.
But then it's back to business in D.C., with more hurdles to overcome by any means necessary. There's always a little time, however, for a cathartic stop at Freddy's hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint, whose proprietor (played by Reg E.Cathey), is ever-ready to serve Frank the ribs he so savors.
Whatever its minor imperfections, House of Cards stands as a towering achievement on the part of a movie and TV series provider that only last year was fighting a PR nightmare over its new methods of charging customers.
Netflix now is very much a player on the original programming front. And the way it's playing this game -- by offering instant gratification to its subscribers -- could have a seismic impact on how future series are packaged and presented.
Imagine being able to watch the latest arc of AMC's The Walking Dead in its entirety instead of waiting week-by-week when it returns on Sunday, Feb. 10th with new episodes. Some prefer to wait until everything is available in one fell swoop. But that of course can take months.
With House of Cards, the consumer is king as never before. Watch at whatever pace you'd like -- immediately. Given its quality, I think you'll be drinking it all in sooner rather than later.