I recently finished binge-watching House of Cards on Netflix because really, binge-watching is the only way to consume it.
With all episodes released simultaneously, we forgo weeks of waiting and for any show that’s interesting, like House of Cards is, you’re going to want to watch as much of it as possible as soon as possible. For me, that was 13, 50 minute episodes in four days.
Many articles have been written about whether or not Netflix’s experiment in original content was a win or a loss for the brand, and you may have guessed by my title which side of the aisle I fall into.
Is House of Cards the best show on TV? No, it doesn’t compare the Mad Mens, Breaking Bads or Games of Thrones-s of our era. That said, it’s still better than 98% of everything else on TV, and that’s not a bad end result.
The show is a product of Netflix sinking $100M to create a show that was on par with the best TV has to offer, and in that regard, they succeeded in many ways. The cast is perhaps even better than most TV shows, drawing big name film actors like Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright (Penn) and Kate Mara as the three pillars of its cast. Hollywood directors form David Fincher to Joel Schumacher stepped in to helm episodes here and there.
Spacey is Frank Underwood, a Democratic congressman who proves that there’s slime on both sides of the aisle in Washington. After being slighted for Secretary of State, Underwood goes on a warpath to exact revenge on the administration that screwed him. At first, this is just the petty dicking over of their new nominees and such, but as the show unfolds, it’s clear there’s a much grander plan in play.
Wright plays Claire, his equally devious wife who has the very non-devious job of running a non-profit dedicated to clean water. But there’s just as much politics in her line of work it turns out, and the Underwoods are constantly scheming with one another in order to help propel both of them onward and upward.
Underwood finds himself drawn to a young journalist named Zoe (Kate Mara) whom he uses to leak stories he wants public and for…other purposes as well. Corey Stoll is Congressman Joe Russo, a public figure that Underwood has in his pocket after getting him out of a DUI with a hooker in the car.
The entire show revolves around Underwood using all the pieces available to him as he attempts to acquire more and more power himself. He’s a master of the backstab, but in such a way that he’ll leave someone else holding the knife, and he’ll be the one with a fresh bandage to help you heal. One of the shows unique properties are moments when Underwood turns to the camera directly to explain how exactly he’s about to manipulate the people in front him, from journalists to the President himself. The soliloquies and the show in general are all very Shakespearean, and many have compared House of Cards specifically to a political play like Richard III.
I’m not sure how I feel about Spacey here as Underwood. He’s a slick talking Georgian who rarely elevates his voice above a monotone or stops for breath. Much of the time, he’s almost a cartoon parody of what you might imagine a corrupt politician to look and sound like. Not to say that isn’t entertaining, but it doesn’t mix with the vibe of the rest of the show which is full of far more normal, believable characters than him. You hate him, but sometimes catch yourself rooting for him. By the end of the show however, he’s crossed the line from merely scheming and slanderous to downright evil, which is a pretty stark distinction.
Other characters can feel thin as well. Mara’s Zoe is a walking plot device who sleeps around so much its almost comical. Even by the end of the show, other characters can’t help but say things like “Jesus, you slept with him too!”
Rather, one of the best characters is the stone-faced Claire, whose open marriage with Frank is one of the most interesting parts of the show. The two have casual affairs and are perfectly candid about it, and always know they have the mutual goal of each other’s interests in mind. Until they don’t, that is.
The other cast member you’ll probably end up cheering for is Joe Russo, the substance dependent congressman permanently squashed under Underwood’s thumb. The actor, Corey Stoll, is tasked with the most emotional trauma on the show by far, and he acts circles around even the veterans that surround him.
The show is sort of a bizarro world version of The West Wing, and it’s been interesting to watch the two side-by-side like I’ve been doing. On The West Wing, you’re following a government staff you genuinely like who are actually trying to do right by the citizens of the country. House of Cards gives you a cast you can’t stand who are only in it for themselves, and no one else, hurting whoever gets in their way in the process. Not that the two ideas can’t make for equally good shows, but House of Cards is the lesser offering due to thinner characters and occasionally awkward writing.
But again, it is a very solid first offering from a company that has never made a TV show before. I think we’re still quite a ways away from Netflix singlehandedly murdering the cable industry, but if there was ever a solid step one, this is it. But there isn’t exactly hundreds of millions to be thrown around to create an entire fleet of shows like House of Cards, so the process will take time.
I absolutely recommend the series for anyone with a Netflix account and an affinity for political scandal and/or Kevin Spacey. I will warn that though the show feels like miniseries, the end might be a bit unsatisfying for those looking for more of a resolution. The thirteenth episode feels like there should be one more to follow, but I suppose that’s what second seasons are for, whenever that might come.