Will David Fincher-directed political drama reinvent the way we watch television?
Francis Underwood, the politician central character of the new Netflix original drama “House of Cards,” is fond of the colorful metaphor. As House Majority Whip, he explains, “my job is to clear the pipes and keep the sludge moving.” And when he tells his chief of staff about a complicated plan to take down a rival, he adds, “That's how you devour a whale... one bite at a time.”
Netflix is offering its subscribers a chance to consume the whale all at once. Within a few hours, all 13 episodes of the first season — starring Kevin Spacey as Francis, Robin Wright as his wife Claire and Kate Mara as an ambitious D.C. reporter, among others in an impressive cast — will be available to stream on the site, in the same way you can use the service to watch past seasons of “Breaking Bad” or “Friday Night Lights.” It’s an attempt to reinvent the way we watch television — if we’re even technically considering this to be “television” at all. No timeslots. No scheduling. No waiting a week to get to the next episode. No cable company middleman. Just you and as much Francis Underwood as you want to watch, as quickly as you want to watch it.
Will this work? Netflix executives are saying that this is how their subscribers are accustomed to watching shows, but when they have a “Mad Men” marathon, they’re binging on a show they’ve been hearing friends, relatives and critics rave about for years on end. “House of Cards” is attempting to skip straight past the word of mouth phase, assuming that Spacey, director David Fincher, and a lot of promotion on Netflix itself will be enough to turn the show into a success, by whatever metric it is they’re using.
That raises the question of whether “House of Cards” is good enough to be worth the fuss. And I can’t exactly answer that yet, because I’ve only been given a couple of bites of the whale.
Critics were only given access to the series’ first two episodes — the only two directed by Fincher (later directors will include Allen Coulter, Joel Schumacher and James Foley) — which is more than I get before I have to review many new series, but less than I often get when I’m reviewing the kinds of prestige cable dramas that “House of Cards” is emulating. We get the beginnings of the story —in which Francis begins pursuing his own political agenda after the newly-elected president goes back on a promise to name him Secretary of State — but not much more.
Those two hours are enough to make several things clear. First, Spacey tears into this role the way Francis Underwood tears into the ribs at his favorite local restaurant (or the way he’d tear into that metaphorical whale). It’s a great, theatrical performance from the two-time Ocar winner, doing his first significant series work since he played incestuous crime lord Mel Profitt on “Wiseguy.” Just as Ian Richardson did in the original ‘90s British version of “House of Cards,” Spacey gets to frequently turn to the camera to address the audience — usually in the middle of a scene with other characters — and the gleam in his eye and the lilt in his voice makes the viewer into Francis’ willing co-conspirator.
Second, Spacey’s performance is accompanied by several other terrific ones, particularly by Mara (whose sister Rooney did memorable work for Fincher in “The Social Network” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) as the laser-focused professional climber Zoe, and by Corey Stoll as a hedonistic congressman who becomes a pawn in Francis’ larger game. (This feels like a breakout part for Stoll, who was the highlight of the otherwise-leaden “Law & Order: LA.”)
Third, working at the much faster pace of television versus film, Fincher still has one of the best eyes of any director alive. “House of Cards” — at least with him behind the camera — is gorgeous to look at, not usually in the attention-getting way of “Breaking Bad,” but in taking a clean, intoxicating look at the corridors of power in and around the Capitol.
It’s enough to know that I want to know more, and see more, certainly. But it’s not enough to know whether certain issues I had with the early episodes will improve as the season moves along.
In these first hours, for instance, Wright’s Claire is a strong character when she’s plotting chess moves with her husband, but too far removed when she’s coldly(*) revamping the non-profit she runs.
(*) “House of Cards” isn’t an exact doppelganger of Starz’s late “Boss,” and is a better show overall. But there are enough superficial similarities — a career politician going rogue after a piece of unexpected news, his blonde ice queen wife, a reporter stirring up trouble while working for a dying newspaper — that it’s hard not to think of Kelsey Grammer and company more often than I imagine the “House of Cards” creative team would like. (Also distracting: the similarity in titles to Showtime’s “House of Lies,” which also has a protagonist who talks to the audience.)
And the writing by showrunner Beau Willimon (“The Ides of March”) is a mixed bag. On the one hand, he very elegantly depicts how Francis’ political maneuvers are accomplished, or how a scandal can be created out of thin air. On the other, the dialogue — particularly by Frank, and particularly in those direct addresses to the audience — is too laden with meaning, too pleased with itself and its many animal metaphors (Francis loves Claire “more than sharks love blood,” a rival will be fed to dogs and realize, “My God, all I amounted to was chitlins”) to not distract from the story itself. Theatrical dialogue and D.C. politics can work together beautifully, as we saw on the early seasons of “The West Wing,” but Willimon isn’t Aaron Sorkin at his peak, and Fincher doesn’t shoot most of “House of Cards” in a way that quite fits with the way the characters talk. (The look is much more “All the President’s Men” than “The American President.”)
Willimon and Fincher are new to television (or whatever we’re calling this), and have admitted they learned things about the medium, and about their series, as they made these initial 13 episodes. (Another season has already been ordered.) It’s entirely possible that, like many of the great cable dramas whose company “House of Cards” aims to join, the series will get significantly better as its first season moves along.
And after I find the time to stream the rest of the season, I’ll be happy to let you know. But it’s a very promising start, at a minimum. The distribution model for “House of Cards” may be looking to reinvent how we watch TV, but the show itself feels very much of a piece with what we’ve been seeing for the last 10 or 15 years.
NOTE: As suggested above, my plan is to revisit this show once I’ve watched the remaining 11 hours of season 1, whenever that winds up being. It’s not really practical for me to attempt individual episode reviews right now, though perhaps if I wind up falling much more deeply in love as the season moves along, it could be a candidate for summer treatment. And I may approach “Arrested Development” differently when its new episodes are released in May.