Posted by: markfender | February 5, 2013

House of Cards

So, there’s a new series on Netflix. You’ve probably heard of it. But have you watched the whole thing? Because I have.

house_of_cardsThe advantage to it being on Netflix exclusively is that they put all 13 episodes up at once so, if one was so inclined, one could watch the whole thing in one sitting. So, like, this is one of the rare times that I’m actually caught up on some cultural thing going on. Normally, I wait til the whole thing’s over. But this prevented that. Woo hoo, Netflix! I feel relevant!

So, this starred Kevin Spacey, playing an evil politician. SOLD. It’s been awhile since Spacey has played that character and it’s always awesome. (Horrible Bosses felt like Kevin Spacey was just playing Kevin Spacey playing a horrible boss – not anything like Swimming with Sharks levels of Spaceyism.) It’s pretty much just like when Book of Eli previews started surfacing. My friends poo-pooed it as Denzel Washington doing that thing that he normally does. But my primary draw was Gary Oldman playing a crazy bad guy. Who cares how the movie turns out? It’s Gary Oldman playing a crazy bad guy – it’s been too long since that’s happened. So, my anticipation levels of Kevin Spacey were high.

He doesn’t disappoint. He’s doing a Southern accent but, unlike most actors, he’s actually good at it. However, I’m a bit confused by all the 4th-wall breaking that goes on. Every once in awhile, Spacey looks directly at the camera and addresses the audience. Sometimes he addresses time, God, and the Devil as well. It’s not confusing about who he’s addressing, but it is confusing why. In the middle of a speech, he’ll turn to the camera and comment on what he’s saying – how well he’s selling it, how this is a pivotal moment, or what have you. It feels unnecessary and frankly, weird. While his occasional eye-rolls to the audience are amusing, the whole thing feels forced. At times, he’ll explain who he’s about to meet with and why they’re important – pivotal plot information. However, I don’t really see reason why there couldn’t be a background aide or someone who’s new and needs the basics of Washington politics explained to them instead of this weird method of explication.

So, the basic plot is that Spacey is playing Francis “Frank” Underwood, Majority Whip in the House of Representatives. He’s maneuvered to get the new President elected, in return for Secretary of State. And then the President denies him. The rest of the show is about how he maneuvers for his revenge. There isn’t much better than a revenge plot, especially in the halls of power. As he pushes bills through Congress, he amasses and spends favors to maneuver himself up the food chain. Overall, I thought this worked well and is the best part of the show. My only complaint there is the plot to get rid of the Vice President is poorly thought-out. There is no way in this here United States of America that the President would agree to just dump his Vice President halfway through a term, even if the VP was fucking gay babies on the Oval Office carpet. They might sweep him under the rug, lock him up at Camp David for the rest of the term, or even arrange for a tragic ‘accident,’ but no way would they reasonably and calmly decide to force his resignation. I’m just not buying it. They’d consider it reelection suicide.

Robin Wright plays Underwood’s wife, Claire, who runs a charity. Both are active in the Washington scene and both collude together to prop their respective agendas up. However, I do feel like Robin Wright’s character is a bit underdeveloped. For the first half of the run, you don’t even get a motivation for her – she plays cold a little too well. I don’t even know why her charity matters to her (other than a purely altruistic “we’re helping” reasoning but not real reasoning on why that particular outlet). Sub-plots are invented and then discarded for her just as quickly. From a weird cemetery encounter in one episode to a weird bedside confession in another, the show just doesn’t seem to know what to do with her. The only sub-plot that even slightly works is the ex-boyfriend one and even that one is iffy.

The other main character is Zoe Barnes, ace reporter for the Washington Herald. She colludes with (lotta colluding in this show) Underwood to leak things and get big bylines. Somewhere near the end of the show, she suddenly realizes that Underwood has done some fishy things and gets all All the President’s Men on Underwood – which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. She knew he was up to stuff the whole time – half the stuff he got up to she had a hand in. The investigation bits are handled well, but this sudden willing blindness to everything that had gone before was a bit disconcerting. Like, oh my god, Underwood’s made shit up. Like half the things he fed you. Why are you shocked and appalled now?

For some reason, I was not expecting this to be an HBO show. It said TV-MA before I started watching it so I was expecting harsh language and maybe some sexy bits. But there’s nudity splattered across the first few episodes. No sexposition, though. I’m not gonna complain about seeing hot naked women, but it was a little more than I was expecting from Netflix. I guess all TV’s got to be edgy now. And I particularly enjoy the product tie-ins. There’s lots of Apple products – in fact, a good ten minutes of every episode consists of people texting. I’m fine with that – it’s realistic. But it’s not realistic that no one has a case on their phone that would block out the Apple logo on the back. And the Playstation tie-ins are pretty blatant. Shots of video games are fine but an entire conversation about the PS Vita felt pretty shoehorned in, not to mention the full panoramic shot of a PS3 booting up (the rabbit hole gets deeper if you consider that I was watching this on my PS3).

The show has an odd tone problem (the 4th wall thing), some character motivation issues (Zoe, Claire, and some of the Administration’s decisions), and some entire characters that get way more screen time than they deserve (Russo’s girlfriend or, hell, even Russo himself). The show also takes its time going places. Despite that, I do like it. It’s got good plotting, some decent political scheming, and, fuck, Kevin Spacey is playing an evil politician. You should watch it for that.



  1. Great review. I’m six episodes into the series and agree with what you’re saying. Breaking the “fourth wall” is a bit jarring at first, but it offers an important opportunity for a juxtaposition to occur between what the characters hile revealing to us their ulterior motives.

    BTW, is Apple a co-sponsor of this? Does everyone in DC use iPhones exclusively? I do like how the texts that are being sent are graphically represented on the screen. I’m sure this has been done before, but like the author of this review, it’s typically years before I see current movies.

    I like Claire’s character a lot and I’m hoping she’ll reveal a bit more about how she came to be as the episodes elapse. Spacey’s character is well-performed, but one gets a general idea of what he’s about. Claire plays the politician’s wife well, but there seems to be a lot more to the story and, ultimately, her story seems more interesting than any of the other characters in the drama. She’s not hard to do tough things, but in the early episodes it seems she’s painfully aware of the unanticipated consequences. Just when you think you have a read on her, she pulls a stunt during the bedside confession of a dying bodyguard. It’s startling and I’m still not quite sure what I witnessed.

    • Yes, Apple is a co-sponsor. And not everyone uses Apple exclusively. Underwood himself is using a Blackberry and there’s at least one shot of someone using T-Mobile as their carrier rather than AT&T. The text thing was done by BBC’s Sherlock to good effect and it’s done to good effect here (BTW, watch Sherlock. It’s also on Netflix.)

      Yeah, that bedroom scene was weird. I thought her speech was good but then she goes for the “kill” and it felt weird and out of place.

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