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House of Cards – Episode 1.01 – "Chapter 1"

                                  courtesy of netflix.com

Netflix’s first big push into HBO territory comes in the form of House of Cards, an original series that will exclusively “air” on the video streaming site.  On February 1st, the company made the bold choice of releasing all 13 episodes of Season One at once.  Some critics slammed the decision as a poor business choice, while others hailed it as a bold new direction in consuming television.  I fall more on the side of the former, especially  because it limits the potential customer base of releasing one per week, while also causing viewers to be on different schedules from each other.  Anticipation is not allowed to be built and buzz becomes limited to no more than a week.  Regardless, House of Cards is a clear indication that Netflix wants to be in competition with the big boys of cable (HBO, Showtime, AMC).

     I am unsure of whether or not I’ll watch these episodes on a schedule or whenever I find time, but the first episode definitely intrigued me enough to want to watch it either way.  Though I’m not sure if I’m intrigued in a positive or negative way.  The series stars Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, a Congressman and House Majority Whip who has just been passed over as Secretary of State by the new administration, despite being promised the position.  A longtime player in Washington, Frank begins to exact revenge on the new President and his staff through a series of political manipulations and deception.  Robin Wright stars as his ice queen wife Claire, a woman with just as much steely ambition as Frank.  Rounding out the main storylines of “Chapter 1” is Kate Mara as a plucky young journalist named Zoe (of course) who blackmails Frank into becoming her top political source.  “Chapter 1” is directed by David Fincher (The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), whose touch is really felt here.  The color palette is a deliberate blue, with thematically dark scenes a faded blue and “keeping up appearances” scenes such as the ballroom a more saturated blue.  There is a chilliness to House of Cards that borrows from what has become a staple of spy thrillers such as Michael Clayton and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  Don’t get me wrong, this show is gorgeous, the problem is it’s a little been there-done that.

     Here’s the thing: I’ve watched TV drama for a long time now.  I’ve devoured hundreds of hours of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and similar cable-oriented dramas.  Having experienced these shows, certain tropes tend to appear in obvious places.  Of course the protagonist is an antihero, he does bad things but we root for him anyway, since it’s his story we’re following here.  The very first scene involves Frank ending a dog’s suffering by breaking its neck.  And obviously the wife is both cold-hearted and blonde.  The two tend to go hand in hand (Carmela Soprano, Betty Draper, Skyler White) in TV drama, so it should come as no surprise when we’re first introduced to Claire Underwood that she tells Frank “It’s going to be a good year for us” with ice queen bitchiness.  Perhaps least surprising of all is Zoe, whose story of an obsessive young journalist who is clearly in over her head has been seen in numerous iterations before.  What’s fascinating about these tropes, though, is how compulsively watchable this show is in spite of them.  I found myself smirking several times throughout the episode, either at the juiciness of the dialogue or the metaphorical chess match being played out by the show’s dozens of characters.  One device that could have crashed and burned was the choice to have Frank break the fourth wall and talk to the camera.  There’s a reason so few movies and shows have done it; more often than not it breaks the tension of the scene and becomes a cringeworthy way of condescending to the audience.  Here, though, it works very effectively, either as a way of explaining exposition or just as a wink to the audience.  I think much of the reason why it works is because of Kevin Spacey.  He is clearly having the time of his life with this Shakespearean dialogue, and his bemused nods to the camera are the best I’ve seen since The Office‘s Jim Halpert.  I think if the show gets any sort of recognition from awards bodies it will be for him.  

     This show isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel.  Perhaps I went into it with the wrong expectations.  Though there are the typical sex scandals, DUI coverups and overall political corruption, the show is very entertaining, and surprisingly funny.  Certain devices are familiar but the writing is smart enough and doesn’t feel the need to explicitly explain to the audience why Character A did this to Character B.  It expects you to keep up and fill in the blanks.  This is comfort TV for the smart TV viewer.  At one point in the episode, Kevin Spacey wickedly explains to Kate Mara that he “never make[s] such big decisions so long after sunset and so far from dawn.”  It is at this point that it became clear to me that this show will at sometimes be very silly and convoluted, and sometimes wickedly and compulsively watchable.  And sometimes it’ll be both.  House of Cards may be treading down a familiar path but that doesn’t make retreading familiar ground any less enjoyable.

Grade: B+
MVP: Kevin Spacey


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