TV: House Of Cards

Kevin Spacey stars as an amoral schemer in the new series produced by Netflix ◆ by Ben Atkinson

Television has blurred the line between pro-and-antagonist for a number of years. Frank Underwood, the central character and foundation for Netflix’s House of Cards, is the latest example of a bad guy we care about. Underwood, the embodiment of villainy, destroys careers and lives, and back-stabs colleagues who trust him, all for the noble goal of personal political advancement. Any thought for the causes he had hoped to champion were forgotten long ago. Denied the cabinet post he feels is his due, he drops all loyalty to friends and political party and uses his position as House Majority Whip to launch a tightly orchestrated campaign to weaken his personal enemies and position himself for an endgame that is revealed gradually throughout the premier season. Along the way he breaks ethics codes, laws, and anyone who stands in his way. And along the way, though we might not root for him, we inevitably start caring about what happens to him.

Kevin Spacey In “House Of Cards”

David Fincher (The Social Network, Fight Club) brings his Hollywood director sensibilities to the show, blurring the lines between television and film. House of Cards shares its name with the early 90’s BBC miniseries and original novel by Michael Dobbs on which it is based. Netflix has released House of Cards in 13 “chapters” of about 50 minutes each. They function more or less as standard one-hour television episodes, with most episodes paired with its neighbor and sharing the same director. The result is basically 6 two-hour movies, and, like movies, the directors have far more influence than the usual television day-worker director. Netflix released all the chapters at once, knowing that many of its users prefer to immerse themselves in a series. The “Netflix Effect” has even become a euphemism for binge-watching entire seasons of television shows, often leaving viewers a season behind the actual airing of the show. Technology has made it easy to watch many episodes together, which has had a huge impact on the production of shows. Viewing several episodes immediately and sequentially allows for a cohesian not possible when a series is doled out weekly over the course of seven or eight months. With around 11 hours of material, season one of House of Cards achieves epic length akin to the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, while still being broken down into digestible amounts. Look for the release of more shows using this format. The recent doubling of Netflix’s stock price won’t go unnoticed by its industry competitors, and Fincher won’t be the only one marrying film and television.

This is a show that values directors and uses the visual medium to great effect. It does not rely on an uplifting story arc or an idealistic hero who stands up to corporate and political corruption. There are no stirring speeches or fast-paced witty dialogue. A great deal of House of Cards’ power comes from visual cues and subtext. For instance, in one episode Frank returns to his district to deal with a potential lawsuit. Outside of Washington, he shows a completely different face to his friends back “home” in South Carolina. After showcasing so much of their wholesome South Carolina home with its flowerbed, welcoming front porch and homey living room, the exit shot for the episode is the stark sterility of the Underwood’s Washington brownstone.

Instead of dry, long conversations about morbidity, we get to see Frank’s middle-aged wife Claire experience jarring interactions while jogging through a cemetery, having to wait for her coffee while an older barista gets help with the digital cash register by a younger barista, and extended moments standing in front of an open refrigerator. She is more than a Lady Macbeth and heads her own non-profit organization. Frequently, she and Frank use each other’s positions to gain influence for themselves, and in many ways it seems a marriage of convenience, as indicated by the extra-marital affairs both enjoy. But like everything else in this show, it’s just not that simple. There are many moments of genuine love and compassion between them and a mutual respect and admiration, and each honestly hopes the other will succeed. Many couples know there is much more to marriage than dewy-eyed romance, and to find a television series in which a long-term relationship is built on something other than children or nostalgia is refreshing. While Claire plays the good wife often enough, when push comes to shove she looks out for her own interests and knows that partnership does not mean subjugation.

Ultimately, it is acting that carries the show home. There are no “good guys.” There are political characters, like Frank and Claire, who care mostly for personal advancement. But even the characters of pure heart and sweet intention either struggle to overcome personal demons. Surrounded by the overwhelming temptations of power and wealth, the characters in House of Cards succumb to the dark side of Washington politics. This isn’t an idealistic portrayal of government or people. Neither is it a condemnation. The characters are real, and the acting is superb. Corey Stoll plays Peter Russo, a congressman compromised by substance abuse, who wants to do right by his constituents but finds the glitter of power too alluring, and once he becomes Frank’s puppet we get to witness some of the personal consequences to Frank’s Machiavellian schemes. Robin Wright (Claire Underwood) and Kate Mara (reporter Zoe Barnes) portray the difficulties their characters face trying to satisfy their professional ambitions without sacrificing their personal lives.

Kevin Spacey is the keystone. Netflix used the vast data collected from users to know that Spacey is a name that would attract a large and specific audience. Like a successful politician he is all things to all people, and it takes a brilliant acting job to pull it off. We see an amoral schemer, a good ol’ southern boy, and a gregarious colleague, all wrapped up into one. The viewer gets a special glimpse of Underwood during his asides. Breaking the fourth wall is an old stage tradition that allows the audience to share the innermost thoughts of characters. The camera adds another dimension. Underwood, instead of merely achieving distance from the action to address the audience, addresses us directly through the camera. These private moments in the spotlight are when Spacey truly shines. And instead of being fooled like Frank’s family, friends, and colleagues, viewers are in the know, privy to the dark inner secrets of this enigmatic mastermind. Ultimately, House of Cards is the story about the variety of stories Frank tells his targets and co-conspirators as he cons his way through Washington. Frank’s asides to the audience are another story, perhaps the story he is telling us, or perhaps the story he is telling himself.

The Ryder, March 2013