House of Cards (2013)

8.3 / 10
51 min
Drama, Politics
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" gives "House of Cards - Season 1" a 9."
Written by on 23 February 2013.
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House of Cards - Season 1

‘House of Cards’ is easily one of the most buzzed about shows of the year. It’s a full-blown attempt to change the American landscape of television and for all intents and purposes, it is. Netflix, which unfortunately isn’t available in the Netherlands, has made a series that is grand and epic in size, budget and performance. The show is an incredibly addicting look into the politics of America as romantic or raw as that may be.

Before we delve into the story; the set-up of the show is one of substance. Netflix, which has only experimented with shows before, ordered two seasons of the show based on a BBC series of the same name, based on a book. With a hefty budget of $100 million it’s an expensive and risky attempt to get into the game. Though the streaming service, which basically allows members to watch any film or series for a small fee, isn’t a match for the big networks right now, that might change soon. Tapping into modern day viewing habits, Netflix released the entire series at once. Correct, all of the 13 produced episodes were ready to view on the very first day. No pesky commercial breaks, no week-long wait for new material, not even the necessity to watch the entire series in order. If you wish you can watch the last chapter before you watch the first. Sadly, the service is only viewable in the Netherlands through the right webbrowser with the right add-on, but if not for the service of Netflix, ‘House of Cards’ certainly is worth the free trial.

The show revolves around U.S. Representative Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey in his best performance of the decade) who recently wasn’t appointed Secretary of State. Disgruntled he plots a way to regain more power in the U.S. Government and he doesn’t care what or who gets hurt in the process. Underwood is a brilliant character on its own. Building of the hype of having smart, wise-cracking off-beat male leads in TV shows, Underwood is a classy rendition. He’s intelligent and manipulative, but he makes mistakes too. He has a strong connection to his wife, Claire Underwood (a terrific Robin Wright), with whom he plots, attacks and devours his threats. But he’s never full. He’s strong headed, decisive and a smooth talker. His complex past and the many, subtle factors that created the man that we see today, is what makes him a treasure as a lead. From a childhood friend he shares a special bond with, to a small joint on the bad part of town that he regularly visits, Underwood is marvellous to watch.

The characters in Underwood’s world, that play a role in his pursuit of power, are as rich as they are necessary. All plot devices, it’s not easy to look beyond their use of resources for Underwood. Yet, as the show tags along they all become more interesting and less predictable. It’s also refreshing to have a show that’s built on bench viewing and allows its characters to have details that don’t necessarily matter but are a treat for fans. The favorite drink of a character is mentioned in one episode and mistakingly, and therefor noticeably, poored in the next. It hardly advances the plot but the small whisk of silence the character shows as he consents to drink something that isn’t his favorite, is a reward for viewers that pay attention. The show, and therefor the characters, is full of those rewards and thanks to its closely nitted plot, characters are used and re-used constantly. There are several episodes that pay attention to the position of Underwood’s driver. They have very little to do with power on the hill but they do exhaust Underwood’s world of all possible stories that advance characters.

Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) is a young journalist who works for a big newspaper in Washington. She comes in contact with Underwood through a subtle moment in the first episode and becomes his way to the media. Her relationship with Underwood, understandably, gets more personal as the show progresses but her world is heavily influenced too. We follow Barnes as she duels with more experienced co-worker, Janine Skorksy (Constance Zimmer), flirts with another and even sets in motion the firing of a third. It’s impressive how the show deals with the ripple effect, as Underwood’s touch seems to change people for better or worse. Barnes develops as a conniving ambitious writer, who eventually has to face her loyalty to Underwood.

Another soul touched by the iron fist that is Frank Underwood, is Representative Peter Russo (Corey Stoll). As a coke sniffing, drunk infidel who always has a hooker nearby, he doesn’t appear of much use. But thanks to a very specific case in his district which threatens the jobs several hundreds of people, Russo becomes a pawn in Underwood’s game. The story gives a necessary human backbone to the world of fancy parties and rich politicians. In the end, this world is fueled by the public and it’s haunting how easily Underwood’s mission disregards the labor of the common people. The moral predicament in which Russo finds himself is a perfect example of politics as we have come to know it, regardless of its accuracy.

‘House of Cards’ is an impressive, grand-scale story of America’s most powerful men. More than any of the current shows that feature the President as a character, this show is a chess game. Strategic manipulations and carefully orchestrated investments are the basic rules and Underwood is the key player. Truthfully, the season doesn’t quite deliver on its set-up and even with every episode more subtle and more beautifully spun than the last, the best seems to be saved for the next season. Yet, the masterful shots of director and executive producer David Fincher (The Social Network) combined with the majestic tones of composer Jeff Beal (Rome), enrich the look of a show that feels as powerful as its story. It might not be a realistic portrayal of the schemes, lies and calculations of the leaders of America, but it certainly is the most entertaining one.
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