*note—some minor spoilers ahead
All 13 episodes of the Netflix exclusive House of Cards premiered recently, allowing viewers to consume all of the show at once or take their time nibbling at it. This is not the first show developed exclusively for Netflix (that would be the underrated Lilyhammer), nor is it the most high profile Netflix exclusive (that would be the upcoming new season of Arrested Development), but, at a $100 million production price tag, House of Cards is perhaps the most ambitious.
Starring Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, a conniving power-hungry Democratic Congressman from South Carolina, House of Cards, written by Beau Willimon (who previously penned the script for Ides of March) and executive produced by David Fincher, is an American adaptation of the homonymous UK miniseries (itself an adaptation of a novel by Thatcher-era insider Michael Dobbs).
Willimon’s take on the series shares much in common with the UK version, from plot details to one-liners (“I couldn’t possibly comment”). And like the UK version, the story and format borrow heavily from Shakespeare’s Richard III (and a little Macbeth as well), in the sense that both feature complex diabolic scheming and political machinations as well as the lead character pontificating aloud in fourth-wall breaking soliloquies meant only to be heard by the audience.
In fact, before signing onto the project, Spacey told Fincher he would need to play Richard III first before being able to conjure Underwood. And Spacey did take on the role of Richard III in Sam Mendes’ production of the play last year, though his performance received mixed reviews (see some clips for yourself here).
(*side note – Mendes’s production seemed based on Richard Eyre’s reimagining of the play in the 90s starring Ian McKellen that presents Richard III as a fascist dictator in an alternate history of pre-WW II 1930s Europe. McKellen and Richard Loncraine later adapted it into an excellent film that is totally worth checking out for the uninitiated, and where you’ll really get a sense of just how much House of Cards was influenced by the Bard’s play.)
(**even more off-topic side note – The bones of the real King Richard III were recently found in a parking lot in Leicester, England.)
The plot involves Underwood being passed over for Secretary of State, and in a fit of revenge power-play, maneuvering to have himself named Vice President instead.
The show is not an insider-baseball exposé of American politics, nor does it purport to be. Viewers will not be treated to a West Wing-type exploration of Washington, as House of Cards is often lightweight political theater. Much of the scenarios skew toward the pat and hackneyed, while others oscillate between the exaggerated to the patently implausible.
For instance, you will hear very little talk about party politics. Underwood is a Democrat, no doubt, but his main adversaries come from his own team. This feels a bit awkward, as much of the real Washington is obviously so embroiled along the Democrat-Republican divide (though nowhere near as awkward as HBO’s Veep, which never mentioned either party). And some may find it strange that the House Majority Whip would even be considered for Secretary of State, much less be able to wield the power that Underwood does.
Other scenarios are laughably ludicrous: The House Majority Whip has the power to get a DUI quashed? All the teachers in the country go on strike? The Vice President resigns to run for governor? OK, sure…
But all of this is beside the point; House of Cards does not wish to skewer American politics but, rather, present compelling Machiavellian drama. At this, I feel it succeeds marginally more than it fails—but just barely. While it may fall short of the Shakespearean depth of the UK version, it’s hard not to get caught up occasionally in some of the plotting and scheming.
I’ve always liked Spacey (he seems like a cool, funny dude IRL, often picks interesting projects, and does great impressions), but I’ve always also thought he was an overrated actor (dude’s got two Oscars, really?). But like Ian Richardson (who played the lead in the UK version), Spacey’s ham-tastic performance is just compelling enough to carry the trudging series along—as long as you can get past his inconsistent Southern accent.
His character, however, has shockingly little depth. He accomplishes much of his schemes far too easily, and his decisions reveal little about his character. Besides a late-season episode that has Underwood traveling back to his former military college, the series never explores Underwood’s overall motivation and what makes his tick—other than the well-worn trope of power for the sake of power.
Some critics have praised the relationship between Underwood and his equally duplicitous wife Claire, played by Robin Wright, but these scenes did nothing for me. I didn’t buy their relationship, didn’t think Claire (or Wright’s performance) was all that interesting, and could not have cared less about any of Claire’s subplot—something about a non-profit organization going international or something, I dunno…
Perhaps the only genuinely interesting and multi-layered character is alcoholic congressman and Underwood pawn Peter Russo (played well by Corey Stoll, who was excellent as Hemingway in Midnight in Paris), but even some of these bits drag on, and let’s just say Russo won’t be making it to the second season.
I applaud House of Cards for its ambition and am happy to see a show embrace new digital distribution models. For this reason alone, I hope it succeeds. So far, it looks like the model is working. Though Netflix has been mum on the actual figures, its executives claim the show is a smash, as many subscribers have been binging on all 13 episodes almost back to back.
I personally didn’t binge on House of Cards as much as forced it down, occasionally finding a tasty morsel but mostly choking on its overwrought, boilerplate excesses. It’s not often that a show suffers from both convolution and banality, but House of Cards manages this feat—strange, that. As Queen Elizabeth told Richard III, “An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told.” In its second season, let’s hope House of Cards finds something a bit more original and interesting to say, because picking the bones of Richard III can only get you so far without the meat of substance.
(By the way, if you’re interested in another recent show dealing with complex political machinations but doesn’t suffer quite as badly from the shortcomings plaguing House of Cards, then I recommend checking out the Danish series Borgen.)