It wasn’t that long ago that the term “online series” connoted something that was shorter, cheaper and generally inferior to programming found on cable and network television. Although this is indeed often the case, I think we can safely call that assumption outmoded with the arrival of House of Cards, a stunning new series that can only be viewed on Netflix.
As its entry into original programming, Netflix could not have made a better choice than this gripping, intelligent and downright addictive drama set in the upper echelons on power in Washington, D.C.
Loosely based on a British miniseries, House of Cards stars Kevin Spacey as U.S. majority whip Francis “Frank” Underwood, a southern Congressman who pulls the strings in the backrooms of Washington. Frank is no stranger to dirty deals and underhanded chicanery, For him, it’s nothing personal; this is just the way the game is played, has always been played. Anyone sensitive to get hurt by standing in his way really should find another game.
At Frank’s side is his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), a stunning, statuesque beauty who is just as smart and ruthless as he is.
“I love that woman like a shark loves blood,” Frank tells viewers in one of his frequent straight-to-the-camera asides, a clever framing device that doesn’t distract from the ongoing storyline.
And some story it is. Produced by David Fincher (The Social Network) and bolstered by one of Spacey’s finest performances ever, the show opens with a just-elected president appointing his cabinet, with Frank furious when he learns that someone else has been appointed Secretary of State — despite the fact he was promised the job.
And that’s when Frank shifts his plan, thus shifting viewer expectations and making us realize we’re seeing a TV drama unlike anything we’ve seen before. Sure, Frank is a classic antihero who’s moral compass is way out of whack, but unlike some TV antiheroes (say, Tony Soprano or The Shield’s Vic Mackey), he isn’t lying to himself. Frank knows exactly who he is and what he is, and proudly worships at the altar of political power.
As we quickly discover, Frank’s in it for the long haul. Not being Secretary of State a minor setback to be overcome, and he has plenty of weapons in his arsenal — especially Claire, who serves as partner and co-conspirator.
When an ambitious young newspaper reporter (Kate Mara) cannily places herself on Frank’s radar, we see these two are cut from the same cloth. In their symbiotic relationship, it’s difficult to feel sympathy for either of them as they both ruthlessly use other equally.
Also thrown into the mix is a rookie congressman (Corey Stoller of Law & Order: Los Angeles) with an ex-wife, two kids and a serious drug problem. When he wanders into Frank’s web, the canny veteran sees an opportunity to elect this “blank slate” as governor of Pennsylvania — especially since Frank possesses enough damaging information about the guy to pull out whenever he needs to keep him in line.
Anyone still thinking a show produced for Netflix couldn’t possibly measure up to the standards set by the high and mighty HBO simply hasn’t seen House of Cards yet. From the cutting dialogue to the juicy performances to the top-shelf production, there’s nothing second-rate here (the first two seasons reportedly cost US$100 million).
It’s also wildly addictive. When Netflix made all 13 episodes available for streaming on Friday, Feb. 1, the following Monday the Internet was crowded with stories from bleary-eyed TV critics who couldn’t get enough, binge-watching the entire thing before the end of a weekend that also included the Super Bowl.
I wearily count myself among that number, having devoured the first four episodes in one sitting, sheer exhaustion the only thing keeping me from watching more. Then next night, as I plowed through more, I considered the pros and cons of watching a show in concentrated chunks versus watching an episode each week. Would I like the show more had I watched it unfold in weekly installments, or would I like it less?
Ultimately, that’s unknowable and irrelevant. The most important thing is that I’ve finished watching season one — and I want more!
All 13 episodes of the first season of HOUSE OF CARDS are available to stream on Netflix