Tuesday, February 19, 2013

House of Cards (Season One)

Creator: Beau Willimon
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, Corey Stoll, Michael Kelly, Sakina Jaffrey, Kristen Connolly, Constance Zimmer, Sebastian Arcelus, Sandrine Holt, Michael Gill, Dan Ziskie, Ben Daniels
Original Airdate: 2013

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

There's a scene that comes late into the inaugural season of Netflix's House of Cards where House Majority Whip and South Carolina congressman Francis "Frank" Underwood (Kevin Spacey) convinces the buffoonish Vice President Matthews (Dan Ziskie) to do something that can best be described as completely insane. It's hard to even believe we're listening to it, much less that the sitting V.P. of the United States would actually consider it as a serious option. But we do believe it. Frank's so persuasive it almost makes perfect sense, becoming clear that every manipulative move he's made from the very beginning has been building to it. Based on the acclaimed BBC miniseries and produced by The Ides of March screenwriter Beau Willimon and executive produced by David Fincher, House of Cards can't be accused of not living up to its title. One move leads to another and then to another until it's infected every facet of government and reaches the highest level possible, causing the house of cards to come toppling down. It's about control and manipulation, anticipating actions and reactions while adjusting accordingly. It's one man's plan to rise to the top of the food chain and take control from the inside-out, even if that means running over everyone in his path.
House of Cards Opening Title Card

You'd have to go all the way back to Kevin Spacey's Oscar winning turn as Lester Burnham in American Beauty to find a role he's been able to tear into like this. And he just chews into it like a juicy steak, reminding everyone just how gifted an actor he is when handed exceptional material. And the supporting players are just as impressive, with many underappreciated actors and actresses being afforded a golden opportunity and taking full advantage. The show isn't exactly perfect, but comes pretty close. There's nothing new or groundbreaking about its story of Washington corruption and calling it The West Wing on steroids wouldn't be completely off base. Where it exceeds expectations is in delivery and execution. The direction, cinematography, performances, production design and even the soundtrack are first class, making for intelligent, gripping entertainment that could compete with anything today on basic cable. No one can claim Netflix didn't go all out here, recruiting top talent in front and behind the camera for their first major foray into scripted original programming. And it really shows.

The series starts slowly, with the first two episodes directed rather cinematically by Fincher. What's most intriguing is how those episodes look and feel exactly like you'd imagine a TV series directed by David Fincher would look and feel like with seemingly no obvious compromises made for the medium. At times it almost feels as if you were watching Zodiac or The Social Network on the small screen, but set in the capital. Fincher's chilly visual style permeates through the rest of the season, even as other talented directors like James Foley, Joel Schumacher and Allen Coulter take over the reigns for the remaining episodes with no drop in quality whatsoever. If anything, their episodes are probably stronger since so much set-up and establishing has to be done early that the show gets off to a methodical start that's sure to play even better when you revisit it. It's a slow burn that doesn't grab hold immediately or necessarily cause you to plow through the season at furious, breakneck pace. It plants seeds for what's to come, even if at first glance it appears that the characters could turn out to be unlikable cliches. That fear is squashed  after only a couple of episodes as the Shakespearean drama starts to unfold and the writing and performances lift the characters beyond that.
Reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) breaks a story

After being passed over by the President Walker (Michael Gill) for Secretary of State, the charismatically scheming Frank Underwood sets in motion a complicated, but brilliant plan for revenge with his ambitious, ice queen wife Claire (Robin Wright) and loyal chief of staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) by his side. There are two major pawns in his game. One is a young Washington Herald reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) who's more than willing to cut a deal with Frank as an inside source to make a name for herself, and Pennsylvania congressman Pete Russo (Corey Stoll), who's tapped by Frank for Governor despite his battles with drugs and alcohol and the fact he's carrying on a secret relationship with his secretary Christina Gallagher (Kristen Connolly). Russo becomes Frank's pet project and the scenes involving him trying to clean this troubled candidate up for a run at office count among the season's strongest.

Equally compelling and driving the narrative is Frank's relationship with Claire, which more closely resembles a business venture than a loving marriage. Yet in some ways it's both as they conspire together to further each others goals, which sometimes conflict when his Machiavellian scheming gets in the way of her trying to successfully run her non-profit organization. Taking cues from the original BBC version, Frank often breaks the fourth wall to turn to the camera and make the audience co-conspirators. Sometimes it's to let us in on his diabolical plans, but mostly it's to make hilariously sarcastic asides. This could have been very pretentious (and the first few episodes I had my worries) but they get funnier and more revealing as each show passes to the point that I eventually conceded the device works really well. Much of why hinges on Spacey's enthusiastic delivery, as he truly looks like he's having the time of his life drolly selling these lines.
Frank and Claire Underwood (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright)

Spacey makes it almost impossible to dislike Frank by playing him so charmingly and charismatically that you fall into a similar trap the characters do. He doesn't so much manipulate people as trick those he needs into manipulating themselves. And many of them aren't stupid. Wright's Claire never feels like she's just along for the ride, often coming off as cold-blooded as he, if not worse, since emotions rarely pierce through her steely exterior (her reaction to a character's mid-season deathbed confession is particularly disturbing). Even when fighting over political leverage or extra-marital affairs the actors slyly make it feel as if they're still teammates disagreeing on the exact means they'll use to win. Both have skeletons in their closets and the writers are careful to reveal just enough, but not too much, such as when Frank returns to his alma mater where a new library is erected in his name. What results is the season's most revealing episode and Spacey's finest work, as Washington politics are temporarily put on the backburner to take a breather and explore the character of this man we've grown to simultaneously appreciate, respect and despise. Then it's back to business.

The series' take on the changing face of print media and journalism is timely if nothing else, resulting in some intentionally (and unintentionally) humorous scenes involving newspaper editors refusing to change with the tweeting times while stubbornly holding steadfast to "hard news." My biggest worry early on was the familiarity of Kate Mara's blogger Zoe, but she skillfully sidesteps a potential stereotype with a clever mixture of bratty entitlement and almost child-like innocence, playing her as professionally on point but personally inept. She'll do anything to advance her career and making a deal (the nature of which I won't spoil, but you can guess) with the devil himself, Frank Underwood, is quickest way to do it. With first Rooney and now Kate (who really displays quite a range here), Fincher can't complain he hasn't gotten his money's worth out of the Mara sisters.

Corey Stoll is doomed Pennsylvania congressman Pete Russo
The season's major sub-plot involving Pete Russo's run for governor is so compelling, and Corey Stoll's performance so revelatory, that it shows up nearly everything else in the series. Despite his weaknesses for drugs, alcohol and hookers, he's strangely the most moral character. We think we're in for another arrogant jerk, but Stoll (best known for playing Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris) digs surprisingly deep, revealing an essentially decent, honest guy who wants to do the right thing by his constituents and family but is being sabotaged at every corner, sometimes by himself, but mostly by others wanting to prop him up for their own advantage. Frank smells his vulnerability and is more than willing to exploit it in order to make him a political puppet.

In a series full of characters whose misfortunes are almost always well deserved, Stoll still succeeds in extracting a high level of sympathy for Russo in a performance that, assuming it qualifies, is more than worthy of a supporting Emmy nomination. A practically unrecognizable Kristen Connolly, who hardly left an impression on me starring in The Cabin The Woods last year, makes a far more memorable mark here as Russo's staffer and girlfriend Christina, whose loyalty and determination lift what could have a the most cliched of relationships into a genuine partnership we end up invested in. Her and Stoll work together so well it's hard imagining their characters even functioning without each another.

Anyone hoping for closure to the major story arc this season may as well go elsewhere, as a "to be continued..." title card may as well have flashed on the screen at the end of the finale. If there's any flaw in the season, it's that a major game-changing event occurs before we reach the end and after that some steam is lost heading toward the finish. Ironically, the very beginning and very end of the season just might be the weakest (if such a word could even be used) sections while everything in between is downright phenomenal.There's really two ways to approach writing a TV series. You can either go the self-contained route and tell a different story each season or you make the entire run of the series an ongoing saga. It's apparent Fincher's going The Breaking Bad route of telling one story stretched over time, which is becoming  an increasingly popular approach in this golden age of serialized dramas.

David Fincher directs Kevin Spacey and Kate Mara
While much fuss has been made about this being Netflix's first major foray into scripted original programming, their distribution model of unloading an entire season at once won't feel new to anyone who's been binging on their favorite shows, or maybe discovering new ones, for the past couple of years. If there's any adjusting to be done for the viewer, it's getting used to these episodes being labeled by chapter numbers rather than actual titles, which sometimes creates confusion when trying to reference a specific episode, but further recreates the feeling you're watching one long movie. This approach definitely feels more convenient than ever, but would mean nothing if the quality wasn't there. But it is. And for a change it's nice to see a show's success or failure judged on merit rather than ratings.   


Daniel said...

Excellent run down of the series, agree with the good majority of your point even I enjoyed it a tad more than you did as I found it nearly flawless.

jeremythecritic said...

The more I think back on it, the more I agree with you. I'd actually be curious to go back and rewatch it now knowing how it all plays out. Can't wait for Season 2.