Saturday, February 2, 2013

Review: "House of Cards: Season 1"

Whether or not Netflix's much-hyped House of Cards will have a significant impact remains to be seen. There is a certain pleasure to be derived from the fact that, starting yesterday, the entire first season was available. On the other hand, with the power to blast through an entire season in a day or two, the wait for the next season (which begins shooting this spring) will likely feel even longer than the usual wait between seasons for high-end series. There's also less chance to discuss the specifics of individual episodes, and speculate about what happens next. Contrast this with, say, Homeland, which always prompts discussions (good, bad, or neutral) after each new episode airs. There's room to let developments really breathe. However, on the flip side, there's also more room for certain plot elements to fall out of people's attention, as they go through the week between episodes going about their lives. 

With this new method of release, Netflix has done something that, on paper, seems borderline counter-intuitive. In an age where writers, directors, and actors are flocking to TV (which, despite the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo, is still very much in a Golden Age), Netflix has condensed the TV viewing experience. Despite having different directors and writers across its 13 episode freshman season, House of Cards could honestly be described as one 13 hour movie, chopped up into broadcast-length episodes. Having recently finished the first season, I can confidently say that this isn't a bad thing.

Adapted from the British series (which was adapted from a novel) of the same name, House of Cards zeroes in on the back-room dealings of the power-elite in and around the government in Washington D.C. At the center of it all is Democratic House Majority Whip Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey). Francis  has been cheated out of the Secretary of State position, a job he was promised upon the election of the incoming President (Michael Gill). Rather than sulk, Underwood decides to carefully manipulate and undermine those around him to work his way into the Secretary of State position, or perhaps further up the ladder.

Appropriately, House of Cards is filled with plenty of characters, all of whom are engaged in various forms of manipulation and deception. It's a plot set-up that could easily become a labryinthine nightmare. Yet under the careful guidance of creator/head writer Beau Willimon, and a talented stable of directors (led by David Fincher, who directs the first two episodes and exec. produces), every plot development is kept in check, without needlessly holding the audience's hand. As the series weaves its tale of backstabbing and manipulation, it still understands how to treat its characters as people, rather than pawns to be shuffled around the narrative chessboard. 

This is most evident in the arcs of three major characters: Underwood, his steely wife Claire (Robin Wright), and Pennsylvania Congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll). In Fincher's two-part kick-off for the show, the Underwoods are effectively shown as quite the ambitious and icy power couple. It's a dynamic that both actors handle effortlessly. We can see in their exchanges that while there may be love in their relationship, for the time being their main concern is how to get what they want at any cost. Affairs don't matter too much to them, which is for the best considering that Mr. and Mrs. Underwood both engage in them. What matters at the end of the day is that they can count on each other when it comes to the power struggles that so thoroughly pervade life in the nation's capitol.

Yet once Mr. Fincher leaves the director's chair, House of Cards elegantly deconstructs the Underwoods, allowing them to function as people with blood flowing through their veins. They remain ambitious and calculating, and often unlikeable (moreso with Francis), yet across the 13 episodes we at least gain an understanding of them, and see enough sides of their personalities to make them worth the investment. We may not approve of many things that they do, but they remain compelling figures. 

The same can also be said for the significantly more sympathetic Peter Russo. After a well-handled introduction in the pilot, Russo's character is somewhat sidelined. At times, the scenes with his secretary/girlfriend (Kristen Connolly) threaten to throw off the show's pacing. However, around episodes 4 and 5, the narrative finally calls on him, and Russo's subsequent arc is far and away the series' most emotionally involving. Stoll came to the public's attention for his richly entertaining portrait of Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris, yet here the actor proves he's equally capable of digging deep into thornier, murkier emotional territory, and the results are heartbreaking.

The series' fourth major player comes in the form of ambitious journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara, older sister of Rooney). Of the big four characters in the series, Zoe changes the least. As such, she's more interesting (and her material stronger) in the season's first half. While she obtains a newfound sense of purpose as the season closes, the role, though often well-written, is the only major part that doesn't quite have a big moment to shine. Thankfully, Mara injects enough verve into the role to make her more than a generic spunky journalist out to prove herself. In the early episodes, she often does the best job of handling the sharp dialogue, and never tries too hard in her delivery to make certain lines sting. Mara also has a good chemistry with Spacey, and the relationship between the two characters helps gives the series such a strong start in regards to both character and plot dynamics. 

Supporting roles are also handled effectively, though often they're used more as plot devices than real people. Gill's President Walker is, purposefully, not much of an entity. More intriguing are Connolly (whose character thankfully avoids being a mousy wallflower) and Ben Daniels (as Claire's old flame). The two have roles that could have easily been little more than distractions, but their characters are fleshed out enough so that they, like the central quartet, are worth following. 

Backing up the performers are the tart, tightly written scripts. Some have complained that Underwood's asides to the camera/audience are overdone, but I can only partially agree. They certainly take getting used to, yet for the first half of the season, they're often quite enjoyable. One in particular, which takes place during a eulogy, of all places, is absolutely hysterical. As the series progresses, the asides show up less frequently, which is appropriate given the more somber events in the plot. When they do show up in later episodes, they can sometimes feel unwelcome. However, the device is ultimately successful, though perhaps season 2 ought to focus on being more careful with how to use them. 

The rest of the writing is quite strong, however, filled with dialogue ranging from deeply human to richly stylized. It's a tricky balance to pull off, yet series creator Willimon and his writing staff have pulled it off quite smoothly. It doesn't hurt that the scripts are brought to life by such strong performers, and fleshed out by the outstanding production values. Netflix reportedly spent quite a lot on House of Cards' first season, and it shows. The entire project could be screened in theaters as a 13-hour mega-movie considering that it's so well-crafted. Fincher's directing in the first two episodes beautifully sets the tone, with elegant camera work and gorgeous lighting that brings out appropriately murky shades of yellow, green, and white. The editing is often quite crisp, and keeps scenes on edge when necessary, yet isn't afraid to calm down in the quieter moments. 

By the time House of Cards cuts to the closing credits for the last time, it's clear that Netflix clearly has high hopes for the series. Release format aside, this is a show that could easily stand as a "prestige drama" on HBO or Showtime (it certainly looks as good or better than the output of those two networks), and remain captivating even on a week-by-week basis. It might not be the game changer some have tried to hype it as, but it has certainly delivered when it comes to quality. It's a gorgeous production filled with excellence in every department, and it marks a bold step forward for Netflix as a provider of original content. Francis Underwood is a man who knows how to plan ahead, to ensure his longevity. Let's hope Netflix takes the same level of care with this series.

Season 1 Grade: A-

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