On Demand Pick: House of Cards
By Amy Taubin
(Netflix, free with membership)
I inhaled the 13 hour-length episodes of House of Cards over one weekend, as the pre-release publicity encouraged. Binge viewing is the card that Netflix is playing with its very pricey foray into original programming ($100 million is reportedly the cost of two 13-episode seasons). Adapted from the BBC series of the same name (also streaming on Netflix, which makes comparison shopping impossible to resist) House of Cards stars Kevin Spacey as Congressman Francis Underwood, the House majority whip whose desire for revenge, after the newly elected president passes him over for Secretary of State, sends his lust for power into overdrive. Frank is as much of a Machiavellian schemer as a sleazy mediocrity can be. One has to admire the creative prime movers at work here, director David Fincher and writer Beau Willimon, for resisting the temptation to give their protagonist, or for that matter any of the central characters, even slightly appealing qualities. Nor do they err in the opposite direction by making Francis as fascinating as the great villainous figures from whom the character is derived: Olivier’s Richard III or Ian Richardson’s Francis Urquhart in the British original—they of the rapier tongues, malign wit, and, when push literally comes to shove, dissociated raptor eyes.
Spacey’s Francis has almost no distinguishing characteristics apart from an intermittent Southern drawl, which he puts on as if to remind himself and those around him (including us, the viewers whom he addresses directly as in Shakespearean stage asides—a device imported from the original series) that he is an actual person representing an actual Congressional district in South Carolina, as opposed to a Beltway construct bent on amassing the maximum amount of power. What the show gets right is the current disconnect between Washington ambitions and a long-lost ideal of public service. The plot rests on a series of quid pro quo relationships that Francis sets in motion, one with an ambitious fledgling journalist (Kate Mara), another with the President’s chief of staff (Sakina Jaffrey), a third with a lobbyist lawyer (Mahershala Ali), and the fourth and most complicated with his wife Claire (Robin Wright, easily the series’ most compelling actor.)
If the script and many of the performances leave something to be desired, the production (if this were a feature film we would call it “the filmmaking”) is brilliantly, even ground-breakingly conceived and executed. Although he is credited merely as one of a half-dozen executive producers and the director of only the first two episodes, Fincher created the world of House of Cards. The casting of the central characters, the visual template for the mise en scène, the sets, the music, the effects, the editing pace, and style are all his choices. If the five directors whom he brought in for episodes three through 13 lack his precise sense of timing, the template keeps them in line without obliterating their ingenuity, especially with the actors. Fincher has explained that his primary demand for the series was that the director be top dog, rather than the writer/producer as is usually the case in television. A pioneering achievement, House of Cards lays the foundation for the new genre of auteurist series drama.