Truck drivers, like many people these days, have had their fill of Washington’s modus operandi: promise results and fairness, then destroy any progress with petty politics. This behavior allows the institutions to continue while appealing to our hopes, while not actually serving any real public need or good. It’s quite the racket, which means there’s always a good story behind it.
So knowing this, some interesting people in entertainment decided to bring Everyday Joes into the beltway boardrooms and newsrooms to give them an idea about how it all goes terribly wrong. The people behind Netflix’s second attempt at an original small screen series are seasoned actors Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, along with executive producer and A-list director David Fincher. What they’ve crafted is a smart looking political expose, but also one that is never quite as smart sounding as they’re hoping. Just like congressional gridlock, this problem isn’t new, it’s just frustrating.
Still, the shot callers at Big Red are throwing everything they can into the show – they’re giving it a decent budget, the cinematography alternates between sweeping and clinical, the talent payroll is large, as is the scope of the story. So it’s a bit curious that they’re working from a deficit they can’t quite balance.
So what is House of Cards all about?
The pitch for the whole season comes in Chapter One’s first 10: Kevin Spacey plays Congressman Francis Underwood, the House Majority Whip and nearly everyone’s Go To Guy on matters of public policy. He has positioned himself with the incoming Presidential administration as the next nominee for Secretary of State. After the new Commander in Chief is sworn in, the administration reverses on Underwood’s promised appointment and send him right back to his office on Capitol Hill.
Underwood doesn’t feel like playing nice anymore and decides to pull off the emperor’s new clothes pants first.
Underwood promises you, the viewer, a front row seat at an event where everyone is going down, and you get to roll with the guy who’s yanking the rug out. Who could resist that? For political TV junkies it’s quite a compelling offer, since there doesn’t seem to be anything else quite like it, save for Aaron Sorkin’s earnest but preachy HBO series Newsroom. Unlike Newsroom, House of Cards isn’t playing to viewers’ noble ideals. It’s a mudslinger that’s angry, just like they hope you are.
The good: To be fair, House of Cards at times swerves dangerously close to parody, as Spacey delivers his well-practiced southern sneer spilling all the seedy details through the fourth wall.
Yet he plays it straight which builds strength in the series, even though there’s plenty that’s holding it back (we’ll get to that in a minute). House of Cards occupies a slightly different version of Washington D.C. where all the character names are fictional, but many of them interact with real political journalists on real television channels.
So it’s a reality that’s not quite Reality Television, and a parody on politics that plays from atop the fence. What Spacey’s character does makes the series title resonate better. While he promises destruction, what he’s actually doing in House of Cards is performing a delicate balancing act. It’s pretty mesmerizing to watch.
But there’s more to TV shows than visuals, so…
The bad: Aaron Sorkin is mentioned as a contemporary for Netflix’s new political confessional a few paragraphs back. That should be revised to say Sorkin’s previous TV production The West Wing is basically the template for House of Cards. Like West Wing, House attempts to keep half of the show crackling with energy and urgency, while slowing down for a few minutes each episode to allow events to sink in appropriately. Part walking and talking, part wistful staring out of the window during a quiet cigarette. So again, it looks the part, but…
Where it falls short isn’t production design, acting, or ambition, but dialogue (which basically amounts to high treason in the Sorkinverse). One minute Spacey’s Underwood is dishing some flash fried vitriol through the fourth wall, the next, some secondary character is spending screen time describing random report points that we’ll never see nor hear about again. House of Cards makes smart sounds, but if you really start to pay attention, it can disappoint. Carelessness with words doesn’t bode well for a show meant to describe the art of the deal in stark detail, right to your face.
House of Cards was released on Netflix Streaming Service on Friday, February 1st. The first season spans 13 episodes.