Netflix's new original series House of Cards — a high-profile American remake of the popular 1990 British miniseries — debuted today, with all thirteen episodes of the DC political thriller available for live-streaming. None of that stodgy broadcast-model week-by-week nonsense. No, sir. Everyone seems pretty interested in this (expensive) new experiment in distributing a series, but how is the actual, y'know, show? Are the overwrought Washington machinations worth bingeing on? We took a look at the first few episodes this afternoon, and these are our findings.
About halfway through the second episode, Kevin Spacey's House Majority Whip Francis Underwood, having just successfully pulled off one of his devious political maneuvers or media manipulations, says to a staffer, "It's too easy." And he's right. It is too easy, all of it. Everything I've seen on House of Cards so far comes with little resistance, pieces of the grand plan fallling perfectly into place with mere flicks of the wrist. It's no surprise, really. The adaptation is by Beau Willimon, the writer whose play Farragut North was turned into George Clooney's limp candidate drama The Ides of March. House of Cards suffers from that movie's same misplaced sense of overconfidence — nothing here is particularly shocking or revelatory, and yet this is a pretty cocky show. I mean, are we to be surprised that a congressional mover and shaker like Underwood, a South Carolina Democrat who's got a hold of almost every string in town, would plant stories in the media to discredit enemies or sink good bills to further his own agenda? We see that play out every week in the real world. And yet House of Cards showily asks us to lean in, to get close while it whispers these fairly obvious "secrets" to us. It feels like some of Aaron Sorkin's more condescending writing, though the wit here is a bit more chiaroscuro; it's heavier, it's a church bell to Sorkin's tinkle.
Given that his character is a South Carolinian, Spacey is handed lots of Tennessee Williams-y clunkers to let ooze out of his mouth, groaners such as "I love her more than a shark loves blood." The "her" in that sentence is Underwood's ice queen of a wife, Claire, played regally and so far mysteriously by the great Robin Wright. Claire is the head of a group called the Clean Water Initiative, and while that sounds fairly gentle and good-hearted, Claire is anything but. She's Lady M to Francis's Mac, and they spend a good deal of time scheming together in their luxe, shadowy townhouse, Francis reassuring Claire that he has irons in the fire, she responding with "I like irons, but I love fire." That's a real line from the show. It's full of that kind of writing.
Still, there's some undeniable delight in watching these two good actors be bad together. The story opens with Underwood being passed over for the Secretary of State position he was promised by the incoming administration. Not one to take a slight lying down, Underwood quickly hatches a scorched-earth plan, the goal being to bring down as many people as possible on his way to the real target, the president. In doing so, he employs the help of a ruthless staffer (a terrifically saturnine Michael Kelly), a hapless scandal-prone young congressman (Corey Stoll), and an ambitious young reporter for the made-up The Washington Herald (why make this up when they rely heavily on the real CNN?) named Zoe Barnes. Zoe is played by Kate Mara, a wily actress who breathes some spirit into stale lines about blogs and web traffic and the death of print media. Willimon is a bit too eager to teach us a little lesson about new media in the initial Zoe bits, but once she gets in cahoots with Underwood, things begin to zip along satisfyingly. That doesn't mean they get any less convenient — so far the rhythm is an easy repeat of set 'em up and knock 'em down — but with all the sharp acting flying around, I'm willing to swallow some of the gentler contrivances.
The first two episodes are directed by David Fincher and they look terrific. Sleek and dark, the show moves like a panther through halls of power and the inner sancta of the decision-makers. I just wish that Fincher didn't rely so heavily on Jeff Beal's insisting, pulsating score. And, of course, I wish that Willimon trusted us to follow him into more complex territory than he clearly thinks we're capable of handling. I like watching Spacey scheme and collude with the likes of Wright, and Stoll, and other great actors like Reed Birney and Jayne Atkinson. But they shouldn't have to do as much work as they're doing to make moments startling and juicy. Maybe it's cynical to be so unsurprised by Washington's black market of favors and pay-offs, but I still can't help but hope that the later episodes show some more cunning; the element of surprise is sorely lacking. Hopefully I'll be eating these words once I've watched the entire series, but so far the experience is not as bracing as all the somberness suggests it could be. It's a house of cards, yes, but that doesn't mean it has to be flimsy.