If you typically watch a lot of recently made Washington-set shows, you might have started to notice a pattern. There’s usually a fictitious version of the Washington Post where an ambitious, Hollywood-gorgeous young reporter argues with her editors about blogging versus “real” journalism (Political Animals). There’s a Machiavellian authority figure with no conscience whatsoever whose primary purpose is to antagonize everyone else (Homeland). Who gets elected and who remains in power depends entirely on a handful of scheming people as opposed to the decision of an informed electorate (Scandal). And none of the locations look remotely like Washington, with the exception of a few scenes of stock footage that punctuate the real action (all three).
House of Cards, produced by and starring Kevin Spacey and directed by David Fincher, does all of the above, but it adds a darkness and a sense of moral implosion that makes it extraordinarily compelling, if sometimes uncomfortable viewing. Adapted from the 1980s British drama of the same name, the show is Netflix’s first foray into making a television series, and the provider breaks with tradition by releasing all 13 episodes of season one on the same day, February 1. It’s a bold move that also seems appropriate given our propensity in these post-cable times to devour entire seasons of a TV drama in one weekend … usually via Netflix.
Spacey plays Francis Underwood, both protagonist and antagonist, the majority whip in a House of Representatives of unspecified party affiliation (he’s called Frank by most everyone except his wife, Claire, the brilliantly chilly Robin Wright). Having canvassed hard for the incoming president, Garrett Walker (Michel Gill), Frank is under the impression that he’ll be given the position of Secretary of State as a reward, particularly given that he’s also helped Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey) into the plum role of chief of staff. “I’ve done my time. I’ve backed the right man,” he purrs malevolently at a victory party for the new President.
Except Walker reneges, and Frank is told he’s needed in the House instead, which kicks off his personal mission to bring down the new administration, goaded by his ice-cold wife and a night smoking Marlboros out the window of his DC rowhouse (if he does have a constituency somewhere, we don’t find out where, at least in the first two episodes). On his hit list: Walker, Vasquez, new Secretary of State Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels), and anyone else unlucky enough to cross his path or get on his nerves. The only person Frank seems to be moderately troubled by is a creepy lobbyist named Remy (Mahershala Ali) whose pocket he appears to be in. Also featured prominently is a handsome, priapic, hard-living congressman from Pennsylvania (Corey Stoll) whom Frank blackmails into acting as his pawn.
Frank frequently talks directly to camera, as Francis Urquhart did in the British original, and while this allows plenty of insight into his Machiavellian scheming, it’s a device that feels rather dated. It doesn’t help that writer Beau Willimon (Farragut North, The Ides of March) gives the character an endless stream of dramatic metaphors to growl while gazing cruelly at the camera. “This is how you devour a whale: one bite at a time,” he says, followed by, “I love that woman. I love her more than a shark loves blood.” And then there’s my personal favorite, which makes him sound like a Twilight baddie: “I never make such decisions so far after sunset and so long before dawn.” We get it, okay? He’s evil.
Nevertheless, after the first episode draws to a close the Dr. Evil-style utterances cool off a bit, and the show relaxes into what it should be: a taut, compelling, brilliantly crafted drama about power and its inevitable toxicity. Frank lucks out when he meets Zoe (Kate Mara), an ambitious and seemingly ruthless cub reporter at the Washington Herald desperate to break out of the Fairfax County council beat and have her own blog. Only her young-fogey editor (Sebastian Arcelus) tells her snottily, “This is the Washington Herald, Zoe. This isn’t TMZ.” [Side note: Is this why the Post killed Celebritology?]
A weird chain of circumstances, in which Frank ogles Zoe’s ass while she’s heading to the symphony at a fake Kennedy Center, leads to Zoe going to Frank’s house and offering to be his mouthpiece at the Herald, resulting in the kind of manufactured scoops cub journalists can only dream of. Zoe’s first big break is a story about education reform being “left of center,” which apparently goes ten kinds of viral the day after inauguration. “This Web traffic’s absolutely crazy,” says Zoe’s editor, who has presumably never heard of BuzzFeed. At least Fincher’s journalists dress in a realistically slobby fashion, if nothing else.
Silliness aside, House of Cards is gripping viewing. The show subverts concepts of good and bad, so the ruthless and vicious inevitably succeed while those unfortunately burdened with a conscience tend to suffer. Frank, our antihero, is a terrible person but also great fun, despite a Southern drawl that takes the edge off his more menacing behavior until you get used to it. (There’s a reason the only Southern TV baddie in recent memory is Will and Grace’s Beverly Leslie.)
And the show is also a surprisingly decent portrait of a city ruled by the quest for power, even if Frank is far more dastardly in deed (we hope) than our current Cantors and Pelosis. The credits, while showing the kind of lush scenes of monuments we’re so used to in Washington shows, also reveal a grittier side: trash in the streets, the ugly underpasses that envelop L’Enfant Plaza. George Stephanopoulos pops up to interview Galloway in one scene, and John King and Donna Brazile appear in another; Frank even has an issue of Washingtonian sitting on the coffee table in his office. House of Cards leaves us with an interesting conundrum: If our elected representatives were as evil as Frank, might they actually get something done every once in a while?
House of Cards is released on February 1 via Netflix. For more information, visit Netflix’s website.