Review: In the end, Netflix's 'House of Cards' good but not great
I finally finished Netflix's "House of Cards" late last week. As promised, I have a review of the entire first season — so don't read if you haven't finished yet and don't want to be spoiled — coming up just as soon as I put a spider outside my super's apartment...
Shortly before Netflix made all 13 "House of Cards" episodes available to the public — and after I had seen the first 2 of those — I wrote that the series started off promisingly, but that the only thing really distinguishing it from the other prestige dramas on television was the distribution model. Having seen all 13 episodes now, I feel much the same way. If this was airing on Showtime or HBO, it would be one of the better dramas on television, but not one of the absolute best.
And the distribution model proved to be a mixed blessing on a number of levels. In what should have been the most shocking moment of the season, Frank Underwood murders Peter Russo at the end of episode 11; someone on Twitter told me about it right after I had finished episode 5. The Netflix model rewards anyone who wants to watch as much as they want as quickly as they want (like my friends who marathoned the whole thing that first weekend), but it also punishes those who want to (or have to) take their time. There came a certain point where my impetus to keep watching had less to do with my enjoyment level than with my fear of being spoiled even further.(*)
(*) In a way, the more obvious comparison here isn't TV discussion, but film discussion, since people see movies at a far more staggered rate than they watch television. But there's a more built-in awareness of that fact among movie people, it seems — or maybe it's just the movie people I follow online — because I can't remember the last time I was accidentally spoiled on a big plot development of a movie I still wanted to see. Because this is a relatively new TV development (and where very few people were watching "Lilyhammer" when it was released the same way), people have been more cavalier about it, assuming that the moment at which they are finished is the reasonable point at which anyone who cared would have also finished.
And there were very clear pros and cons to marathoning the show over even a couple of weeks (not even days like some of you did) versus the 13 weeks it might have taken to watch this on cable. Having another episode to leap to, and then another and another, meant I didn't spend as much time dwelling on the one I had just seen — for good and for for ill.
Frank's scheme to become Vice President after he's passed over for Secretary of State, for instance, is a fairly improbable Rube Goldberg contraption, yet I was too busy queuing up the next episode to focus on those things the way I was watching, say, "Homeland" week to week. (Suffice it to say that "Homeland" season 2 would have played much better as a marathon.)
But there were also stories that suffered from seeing the episodes in such close proximity to each other. Zoe's transition from amoral careerist to someone genuinely interested in chasing the story — even if it was in part to spite Frank for casting her aside — felt much more abrupt watched this way than at a more leisurely pace.
And the flip side of not dwelling on the show's flimsier attributes is that I also didn't dwell as much on the stronger ones. I wasn't as emotionally engaged in the story and the characters than I might have been otherwise. When there's a really interesting and unexpected character moment like Frank and his old military academy buddy alluding to the sexual component of their relationship, it gets swallowed up by the need to get to the next episode and see where the story's going.
But it's also possible that my middling engagement would have happened even if "House of Cards" had been sold to a pay cable outlet who aired it the good old-fashioned way. It's a deeply cynical show, which isn't a crime in and of itself — it's harder to get more cynical about the world than "The Sopranos" — but the cynicism of "Cards" feels like a very superficial kind. It's a world where almost everyone is out to get what's theirs, and the only thing differentiating most people is how good they are at it. Though Frank's identified as a Democrat, there's no hint of any ideology he subscribes to other than the advancement of Frank Underwood — and he's not presented as an anomaly in this belief system, simply as someone who's better and slicker than his rivals. One of the reasons the military academy episode stands out as a series highlight is that it attempts to examine who Frank is as a man, rather than just use him as a shark who's relentlessly swimming forward, snapping up the plot one big bite at a time.
And when you have an actor like Kevin Spacey playing Frank, and wrapping his faux South Carolina accent around the colorful dialogue of Beau Willimon and company (stopping at a church to pray in the finale, Frank looks down and suggests, "Perhaps I'm talking to the wrong audience"), it matters less that Frank is ultimately such an empty character — but it still matters. As much fun as it is to watch Spacey prowl around, there's precious little humanity to the character most of the time, just an unending feeling of want. Walter White and Tony Soprano are monsters, but they were people first, and the way those characters were written and performed, you can understand the transformation from the one to the other, and those moments where the human gets to pilot the ship for a bit. Even if I hadn't known in advance that Frank was going to kill Peter, I don't know that it would have felt that shocking, because Frank would have had to seem like something other than a high-functioning sociopath the entire time for it to feel like a surprise. The show had to build to that moment for the emotions of it to feel earned; it didn't, so they weren't. (And on the other hand, would so careful a schemer as Frank Underwood have really done something like that with such huge potential for exposure, rather than waiting for Peter to either drink himself to death or sober up and back off?)
The supporting characters weren't necessarily written with any more richness or nuance, but the performances created that illusion more than Spacey's did. Corey Stoll in particular was fantastic as Peter: so heart-broken and weak and yet likable. I've seen many struggling addicts before, but Stoll left me feeling I hadn't seen this struggling addict, just as Kate Mara elevated Zoe above cliche and Robin Wright managed to stitch together the many disparate aspects of Claire Underwood (though even she couldn't make me care about anything to do with Claire's non-profit). The way Frank and Claire's marriage functions under the illusion that they're equal partners, when she's always subservient to his needs and desires, was one of the show's strongest character arcs, and the thing I'm most interested to see when season 2 is finished.
There's certainly lots to applaud about "House of Cards." The directors who followed David Fincher did a good job of following the visual template he set (Frank with the candles at the church in the season finale felt like Allen Coulter saying, "Hey, I can shoot a gorgeous picture, too"). The series moved briskly and did quite well with the unexpected small moment, like Lucas effectively playing undercover cop to trap the hotel hooker, or Peter rolling a joint to prove his trustworthiness to a conspiracy theorist.
But as a drama — rather than a standard-bearer for a non-traditional distributor — it doesn't reinvent the form. It's a pretty good approximation of that form, but the flash of the Netflix model masks the ultimate lack of substance. Like Frank Underwood, it moves ever forward, only somewhat concerned with what it's about beyond its own success.
What did everybody else think? Where would you rank "House of Cards" among what TV currently has to offer? Did you find the all-at-once model enhanced your viewing experience, detracted from it, or both? Did it feel any different from when you've used Netflix, another streaming service or physical media to quickly catch up on a pre-existing series?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org