Let’s cut to the chase: this is the future. As a rule, you can’t talk about Netflix’s new political drama House of Cards without mentioning how innovative its arrival is. This isn’t the first time a show has ever been released as an entire season online simultaneously, nor is it the first time Netflix has done it, but with all due respect to Lilyhammer’s “New York Gangster Lands In Sweden” premise, this is the first time they’ve done it with a show I can make it past the second episode. House of Cards, a $100 million investment for the guys who once delivered discs in red envelopes to your door, is built for the service end-to-end. The episodes don’t feel like discrete plates of drama, they feel like casual breaks in the series’ tempo, which helps the fact that you don’t need to wait until next week to pick up the next episode. I’ll try to keep SPOILERS as light as possible.
The Hazards Of Pennsylvania Avenue
Guiding us through this dark political maze is Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood, who serves as the keel of the series. Equipped with a disarming Carolina drawl and a propensity to elaborate with the audience directly, Spacey owns this show as the Minority Whip not necessarily with the ends, but definitely the means, to do exactly what he wants. The show opens on New Year’s Eve as a new President-elect is about to pick out his cabinet. Frank’s been promised Secretary of State, but is quickly betrayed by the man he put in the Oval Office to begin with. Outraged for all of a second, Frank knows how best to handle the situation: by flashing a quick smile and a smattering of gratefulness before diving into his war room to subvert any who would dare take the spot in his place.
Blocks away, an enterprising young metro beat reporter, Zoe (Kate Mara), is tired of reporting about firemen rescuing cats from trees and right when Frank needs a mouthpiece to push his agenda, he happens to be available for some hot exclusives. Someone else who becomes available is alcoholic tough guy Peter Russo, a representative from Pennsylvania, who falls into Frank’s web after being busted for drinking and driving with a prostitute riding shotgun. Too easy. Frank pushes and pulls so many strings so effectively that one begins to wonder if he’s invincible. This became slightly irritating as soon as I got over the novelty of his solutions. He manages to conquer every obstacle with relative ease. Thankfully, the tide starts to change…
Frank is more than happy to take advantage of Zoe’s enthusiasm (and sexual youth) to get what he wants while maintaining a complex working relationship with his wife Claire, an icy cold bitch played by Robin Wright. This show reminded me it’s been nearly twenty years since Forrest Gump (Wright) and The Usual Suspects (Spacey) and both perfectly aged to be manipulating others inside the Beltway, which completes the illusion. These two know the ropes, they’re co-dependent, but only exclusive to the point that their interests are served. Claire runs a charity organization that’s backed by fictional oil giant Sancorp, a fact that complicates things quickly between the two when motives get crossed.
House of Cards plays the right hand by making all of its characters fictional. Unlike a contemporary like The Newsroom, which blends fictional characters with existing figures, House of Cards has full reign to do exactly what it needs to, which was a pleasure. There’s little disbelief to suspend as Frank’s plans become more complex and ensnare more and more players in the world’s most powerful government. Even better, it ditches the handheld cameras and quick cuts to show you every move, penned in part by playwright Beau Willimon. Despite the plethora of static shots and slow pans, the pace never feels pedantic and Fincher (who directs the first two episodes) brings in plenty of crisp photography to boot. Every twist in the exposition feels reasonable, rather than cheap or shocking, which lends to the cast’s credibility and motives. I’d give details, but you should really just bust out the Netflix subscription (or free trial, if you’re one of those people) and dive in immediately.
Getting Out The Vote
As the show’s cast, crew, and benefactors have already yelled to the heavens, this is the future. Perhaps the notion that you’ll have to wait even longer for a second season if you mainline the whole experience in a weekend will become irritating, but we’re not there, yet. We already chill with season after season of TV series as is, so content makers like Netflix are finally realizing that we want our satisfaction now, instead of on a weekly appointment. As their first huge experiment in bringing simultaneous digital releases to life, House of Cards is a huge win. Any lesser show would have not only crumpled their own weight, but the weight of baited expectations.
Sorry Lilyhammer, House of Cards is Netflix’s first best note.