Is this a review of Netflix’s House of Cards, a partial review, or a review-in-progress? That I’d struggle over what to call it says a lot about the significance of the streaming giant’s first original series, a Beltway drama starring Kevin Spacey and executive produced by David Fincher. Netflix put the whole thing up at once Thursday at midnight, frustrating recap culture’s junkielike hunger to micro-analyze each chapter and guess what’ll happen next. More so than a lot of episodic TV, it’s designed as a thirteen-hour-long movie and pretty much demands to be viewed in totality, heeding David Simon’s admonition to consider the whole in relation to its parts. However, while certain shows may start out okay and bloom into something amazing (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for one), there are also disasters that reveal themselves as such right away. So far I have only gotten through the first two hour-long episodes,and will be watching the rest over the weekend in order to weigh in next week on how it works as a complete piece. However, I wanted to do an early check-in for the Netflix subscriber who wonders, are the first two episodes intriguing enough to make one want to watch more?
The answer is a qualified yes. House of Cards’ Washington, D.C., is a swamp full of snakes. Our forked-tongued guide is House Majority Whip Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), who helped a new president get elected and is so furious at getting screwed out of a promised secretary of State appointment that he plots to destroy the man. At one point, Francis observes that power and money are very different, and that only a fool chooses money over power. Underwood is no fool. He understands how to gain and hold power, and how to turn a crisis into an opportunity. He tries to undermine the new president’s education bill by feeding an early “tax and spend” version of it to a hungry young newspaper reporter named Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). Underwood’s longtime wife Claire (Robin Wright) is as icy a fixer as Francis; by episode two, she’s already started cutting staffers from the nonprofit she runs in order to remake the place in her own image. Notable supporting characters orbit these three leads — including a womanizing alcoholic congressman played by Corey Stoll — and a few get sucked into schemes they’d avoid if they were tougher or wiser.
The first two courses are flavorful, though some bites leave a bland or bitter aftertaste. I already wish that Spacey’s character weren’t the lead. He’s colorful but not magnetic (yet). Watching him, I found myself missing the animal vitality that Ian McShane brought to Deadwood and that Kelsey Grammer brought to the similarly themed but much trashier Boss. And I found the show’s big creative flourish — Underwood’s Richard III–style, fourth-wall-breaking monologues — instantly tiresome. If the lines were of Milchian quality, I wouldn’t make this complaint, but too many are greeting-card aphorisms wrapped in cornpone, and Spacey’s Foghorn Leghorn accent only italicizes their deficiencies. “It’s degrading, I know,” Underwood tells us after kissing up to a major donor, “but when the tit’s that big, everyone gets in line.” We could already tell that from watching the scene, dude, but thanks for sharing.
The first two installments of House of Cards are smartly acted and written, crisply directed by Fincher, and sumptuously photographed by Eigl Bryld (In Bruges), but they’re not mind-bogglingly great, or even particularly surprising or delightful — just solidly adult, with moments of dark wit. If this show aired on an existing cable channel, or even a broadcast network, it wouldn’t be considered an event. TV history is filled with reasonably intelligent political dramas that didn’t catch fire for whatever reason; my gut tells me this would have been another one, were it not for the unique circumstances of its creation. But who knows? Fincher and series developer Beau Willimon, a playwright, strike a consistent mood of relaxed cynicism and moral anxiety that binds all the subplots together. A full review of the entire season will follow next week, after I’ve had time to feast and digest.