House of Cards Series Premiere Review: They All Fall Down

By Tim Surette

Feb 01, 2013

House of Cards S01E01: "Episode 1"

By the time you read this, you may already know how the end of House of Cards' first season pans out so this conversation may be moot. See, Netflix released all 13 episodes of the first season at once on its video-streaming service. I won't go into the business aspects of that decision (I'll leave that to Cory), all I can do is talk about the first episode because as of press time, that's all I've seen. So here we go, me talking about just the beginning of something that's already out there in its completed form (returning for a review of the entire series is very unlikely). Hopefully it's still somewhat relevant by tomorrow. β€”Tim

Netflix's new series House of Cards is more of a statement show than a real effort to draw in subscribers. If the project does bring in new business, great for Netflix and its stock prices. But the real goal here is for Netflix to launch its original programming arm without stepping on a rake or crashing through a glass door. The company also wants to break into this territory with a few big names it can tout, and there they are in bright lights, the actor Kevin Spacey (KPAX, Pay it Forward, and some other movies) and the director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, The Social Network).

It's a safe plan, and for the most part House of Cards works. But it isn't the bombastic splash that will bring non-believers flocking to Netflix with eight bucks in hand. It is, after all, a slow-burning story where drafting bills for Congress is considered a salvo. A highbrow look into the devious machinations of D.C. politics, House of Cards is more like a Best Picture nominee that no one you know saw. It's extremely competent in the moment, but once it's turned off, you won't be scrambling for the remote to start the next episode like you would with some of television's more addicting top-tier programs.

Spacey plays Majority Whip of the U.S. House of Representatives Frank Underwood, a man who attached himself to the freshly elected president of the U.S. with the idea that he'd get promoted to Secretary of State as he climbed the ladder. But the prez had a different idea and passed over Underwood after he put his first and last month's rent on the White House. This didn't sit well with Underwood, and he decided a little payback is in order... so he proceeded to concoct a plan to tear down the new administration. I'm being serious when I say there's a little bit of Revenge here.

Underwood's plan involves having an ambitious tiny reporter (Kate Mara) in his pocket, blackmailing a philandering Congressman (the excellent Corey Stoll), and playing everyone like a fiddle as his scheme comes together. And according to House of Cards, this kind of malicious behavior is pretty much in the job description of anyone who works in Washington, from the POTUS to the guy who sells you coffee. I'm assuming the D.C. Tourism Board gives the show two thumbs way down. It's a bit like watching hyenas nibble on each other in a cannibalistic Conga dance where Underwood is the last in line, but there's no doubt that someone will be chewing on his tail soon.

It's too bad that Underwood himself isn't much more than a man with a tuft of fur in his mouth, a limited range that distills Spacey down to one bitter, driven note. Heck, when we first meet the man, he's suffocating a dog that was hit by a car and it's unclear whether he's putting it out of its misery or if it's a hobby. In the first episode (and much of the second), Underwood is always "on," never encountering an obstacle he can't overcome in his quest for revenge and doing so with the tenacity of Georgetown's bulldog mascot. The man can even get a plate of ribs at 7:30 in the morning from a place that isn't even open. He's crusading, and we believe in his crusade, but he's moving pieces around without much resistance.

Underwood also engages in an interesting creative decision in just about every scene he's in. Serving as our tour guide, Underwood will look at the camera and talk directly to us, giving the inside scoop on what's going through his mind. His Southern accent spouts dialogue that at times feels like it was laboriously chiseled down for the stage rather than the real-world ("When I carve him up and toss him to the dogs, only then will he confront the brutal and escapable truth... 'My god, all I ever amounted to was chitlins'") and at other times stumbles ("I love that woman, I love her more than sharks love blood"), but he does get some quotable humdingers in there when it's good. The destruction of the fourth wall is reminiscent of another House of show, Don Cheadle's Marty Kahn of Showtime's House of Lies. Maybe it's just me, but breaking the fourth wall is one of those devices that works well for Ferris Bueller or Parker Lewis and accentuates the playfulness of a film or show. House of Cards is as playful as a starving wolverine, and Underwood's chats with us jar the mood and scoop out some of the reality of the show. The self-satisfied smug mug he flashes when he's done imparting his wisdom, sometimes even after a new camera angle, doesn't help things either.

But helping things out greatly is David Fincher's work, coloring the District of Columbia in a dark spectrum of unflattering colors. His shots are gorgeous AND unassuming, and perfectly enjoyable with the sound off. At balls and galas everyone is nicely attired in tuxes and adult prom dresses, but elsewhere a layer of grime covers the city. Mara's Zoe comes home to an apartment that roaches would pass on, and she not only drinks wine from a coffee mug, it's a mug that hasn't been washed in three bottles worth of cabernet. These touches, like Underwood scarfing down a plate of ribs in an "authentic" part of town while his pristine SUV and Secret Service agent wait at the curb, show what we're dealing with here: a city where the powerful and struggling collide, and the line between the two is porous, forcing everyone to dig into their footholds and never look down.

Even with its problems, House of Cards is an impressive debut for a media company looking to turn into a media giant. But doesn't have quite the quality of its pay-cable counterparts, or even of the basic-cable cool kids like FX and AMC. Netflix may favor the all-or-nothing binge-watch sprint, but with House of Cards it has the first step in what will be a long, long haul.


– As is the case with these types of shows, there are going to be a lot of stories going on simultaneously, and the one that stood out to me was Congressman Russo's, the man having an affair with his secretary. In contrast, Claire Underwood's arc didn't work that well for me early on. But again, this show has plenty of time to mix things up and establishing stories early isn't the most exciting part of a series.

– It's always great to see Michael Kelly in anything. Currently, he plays Agent Snow in CBS's Person of Interest; here, he plays Doug Stamper.

– Is everyone in Washington, D.C. really that much of an insufferable asshole?

Follow writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom

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  • ElRob Feb 19, 2014

    Just started watching this, looks like I'm a year behind the world!

  • efonsecajr Staff Apr 15, 2013

    Finished it in one weekend. Great show. Francis Underwood (Spacey) is not limited in range. Character grows and grows on everyone.

  • Marburg66 Feb 07, 2013

    I'm only about 1/2 way through so far, but one thing that I absolutely love up to now is that the show expends more emphasis on the overall gameplay of politics more so than the party play of politics...what I mean is, Unlike West Wing (for example) that had a clear progressive bias or 24 that had a clear conservative bias overall...this one seems to say "eff off to all that BS" and seems to belt us across the face with the entire Beltway mentality, TV style.
    I'm officially a fan now.


  • sicilian71884 Feb 06, 2013

    I watched the whole season in two days and loved it. Can't wait for next season

  • Acrobit Feb 04, 2013

    What I do wonder about here is that if a new series that a reviewer actually wants to watch pops up on Netflix (obviously can't be too political..), are they gonna review it as one lump sum, or would they break it into pieces...?

  • kevlong67 Feb 04, 2013

    I watched the whole series over the weekend and liked it but it pales in comparison to the original from the BBC. The original was funnier, had better revenge moments, and more interesting. One of the biggest changes is the way they portrayed Spacey's character in that they made him unlikable while the original made the sociopathic lead very charming.

    Netflix chose reality over a better show and while I certainly liked it, this show felt like cable televlsion, audiences would have turned it off in droves by the 4th episode. If you doubt it, compare what happens in TNT's superior Political Animals which is a better comparison to this show than the original on the BBC. We all know what happened to Political Animals.

    I do think Netflix made a mistake releasing this all at once. The reason people subscribe to HBO, Showtime, and Starz these days is for their original programming and they make sure there is another "must see" episode on the horizon while keeping the public talking about the current shows over their 10 week run. House of Cards will get one week of publicity and be forgotten until next year when (if?) season 2 debuts. It's not going to work to attract viewers and while Netflix likes to think they are different because they use a streaming model, they aren't. Just like HBO will eventually be forced to stream, Netflix will eventually copy HBO's weekly episode release strategy. It's better business.

  • AlixPolitanof Feb 04, 2013

    I have just finished the whole season of the show and its really great. While it may start out slow or seems that everything is going too perfect for Francis that quickly changes and there's tons of nail biting drama that happens. Episode 9 and after is where its nonstop action, conspiracy, and betrayal. The season started out a little slow but it ended on a great notes and makes me excited to see what happens in season 2. Not everything is going well for everyone and you never knows whose on what side. I suggest everyone who has Netflix watch it and I can't wait to see their next series Hemlock Grove which I was 10 times more excited about than house of cards because I absolutely love horror genre or supernatural genre tv shows.

  • bkyle2429 Feb 04, 2013

    tried watching I was bored !!

  • gtbell Feb 03, 2013

    I watched the first 5 episodes non-stop last night and find your summary a bit puzzling. You seem more concerned with what will or will not happen to Netflix for offering this show as it's first major production.
    I then thought, oh, what a minute, Tim didn't mention the original British House of Cards. Maybe he didn't see it. That's why he doesn't like this American version.
    If you had seen the BBC version, you'd have a better appreciation of this U-S version. The Yank version is more crass and vulgar than the Brit counterpart and the general script language is not as well-crafted as the BBC's. Mind you, the same can be said of all U-S/British show scripts. They just use the language better. As it's meant to be used.
    As for the lead's 'asides' to the viewers, they are what help to make the show different and to move the plot along.
    I will definitely watch the remainder of the episodes released so far. I also hope Netflix doesn't cave-in if the audience numbers don't meet their expectations this season.
    Also, kudos to Kevin Spacey for having the guts to prodice and star in this vehicle. More power to him!

  • Acrobit Feb 03, 2013

    I like it. It's like Boss but with an apology for Boss. While Kane was right of Napoleon but just left of Mussolini, Underwood's more like a southern gentleman's Rahm Emanuel. Also, while I didn't know a single woman who could stomach more than a few episodes of Boss, HoC at least puts Underwood's wife at-or-above his level, her being the shark with the bigger dorsal fin.

    The problem I see with that is that while they're both making sausage, she gets even messier than he does. Claire is likeable kinda like Ann Romney was (yeah..), and while I don't think female viewers are gonna hate Frank *that* much, I don't see any likeable women, besides possibly the new hire at Claire's charity. I really think that if women don't watch, show don't continue, so I hope the new character gets more time and broader shoulders.

    It's probably not going to win too many viewers, but I like when he breaks the fourth wall. Just like in House of Lies. When he explains something, I find myself nodding at the television screen. "Very well, Kevin Spacey. Proceed." However, it seems that most people don't like that sort of thing; they pretty much killed it in HoL. They prefer some kind of ridiculous overly-descriptive dialogue between people who should already know what's going on...because *we* don't already know what's going on. I don't watch Blue Bloods any more, but that kind of crap seems to work very well for them, and it makes me sad.

    As for Zoe, I didn't like her at first, and after a couple of episodes, I grew to like her, I just also dislike her. It probably makes sense when you've seen an episode or two. I'm not into 100% pure ambition. You can't trust anyone like that; you can only use them and discard them, in that order, with no exceptions. Anyway, she works fine for the show, but I think it would've worked if she'd actually been a good person, too. She's not making sausage; she's more like a spice, like...Fennel? I dunno.

    So yeah, I only watched three episodes, but that's kind of a lot since it takes me days or weeks to watch a single episode of others (lookin' at you, Arrow). I really think they should've released HoC on a weekly basis, or even two a week, but w/e. The only problem I have now is the need to ration the remaining episodes out. Gorging out on anything really isn't good for us.

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