I can, with relative certainty, that the question was never if I would end up watching House of Cards. It was always a matter of when. After all, they have been trying to adapt the original British series for American TV for years. It became a blip on my radar when I heard that Kevin Spacey was attached to produce and possibly star. It became much more interesting the minute they announced that Netflix would be picking up the series as part of its flagship program to create original content. Then I heard that David Fincher, my favorite director at present, was attached to produce and direct some episodes. It’s not often that I’m sold on any piece of media, be it a movie or TV series or book or anything, until at least I’ve heard a word or two from critics.
And I’m happy to report that this show delivers. In a television landscape that’s absolutely overrun with trainwreck clowns and lowest-common-denominator pandering, it’s nice to finally take in a show that treats you like an adult. Then again, there are plenty of other shows that cater to the more refined TV palate. House of Cards also accomplishes the rare task of respecting your intelligence. Although there are plenty of us out there who enjoy watching a show like Breaking Bad, a vast majority of us have a very rudimentary understanding of chemistry, and an even tinier knowledge of the meth-making process. Thus, these types of shows have to circumvent this issue in one of two ways, either gloss over the more technical details, or waste time working exposition into their dialogue. House of Cards does neither of these things. Politics play a central role in just about ever plot line of the show. Yet it rarely takes time to explain itself. Rather, it just trusts that you paid attention in grade school, and are smart enough to read news on a regular basis.
That is not to say that the show doesn’t have any exposition at all. It does, and most of it comes from Kevin Spacey’s almost-Shakespearean asides to the audience. Very often, breaking the fourth wall is a tell-tale sign of bad writing. Whether it’s a main character breaking the fourth wall, or simply a disembodied voice narrating every plot point, this tactic is often a cheap and easy way to get information across without putting in very much effort. Sure, Francis Underwood does give us a little bit of exposition whenever he speaks to us directly in House of Cards. However, more importantly, he also gives us an insight into his character, and lets us appreciate just how ruthless, cunning, and downright diabolical he is. This is made even better by Kevin Spacey’s charismatic performance. Here is a person who your brain tells you that you should despise: he’s ruthless, vindictive, selfish, bigoted, and just a downright asshole. But Spacey plays him with so much charismatic, colorful, southern charm that you can’t help but enjoy watching him work. To be fair, Spacey also has a great supporting cast helping him out. Robin Wright and Kate Mara do an especially good job of portraying two smart, capable, and engaging female characters. These characters, a wife and as a young reporter respectively, could have easily been simplified into mindless pawns in Frank’s game. Instead, the script lays the groundwork for two complex and appealing characters who have no trouble playing Frank’s game or standing against him. Wright and Mara do a beautiful job of bringing these characters to the screen. Let’s also not forget that this show is beautifully shot. Fincher directs the first two episodes with impeccable camera work, and creates a muted color palate that, coupled with his ominous lighting, sets a deliciously moody tone. Subsequent episodes pretty much follow suit, as if all the series’ directors were on set during Fincher’s episodes, looking over his shoulder and taking detailed notes.
All in all, I think I like House of Cards because it’s a show for our times. Sure, the whole concept of the political drama is nothing new, and neither is the concept of weaving politicians and journalists into a web of sex, drugs, alcohol, and malicious intentions. However, there is something about Frank’s cruel, calculating, and merciless drive that provides a welcome break from the ideological gridlock we see in our real government. Furthermore, we’ve passed the hyper-patriotic times where shows like The West Wing thrived. Today’s television viewer is much more jaded and embittered by years of recession and partisan hackery, and is much more inclined to get behind a character who shares our distaste for bullshit. It also says something that this show is on Netflix. What with YouTube, Hulu, Ultraviolet, and all these other services bringing content directly to us at home, it only makes sense that we’ll start to see more and more original content that gets delivered to us this way. Plus it certainly beats having to wait for a year or more before quality television shows finally make their way to Netflix streaming (if they end up making it at all).
So if you’re poking around Netflix on your Xbox, or you’re just in need of another show to add to your lexicon, I’d highly recommend checking out House of Cards. So far, I’m ten episodes in to the 13-episode season, and it’s done nothing but get better. Plus, it has won over Will, who was indifferent to the series at first. The more he watched, though, the more he got as hooked as me.