House of Cards Series Premiere Review: They All Fall Down

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. —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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