This Friday, Feb. 1, Netflix and Netflix Canada are laying all their cards on the table. That is, they are dealing out every episode of the first season of their first mainstream scripted series, David Fincher’s politically-charged snark-fest, House of Cards, to their loyal (read: hopelessly addicted) subscribers.
From some perspectives, this might seem like a risky bet, a guaranteed ticket to pay TV’s losers’ circle. I mean, haven’t the last few decades proven that viewers are OK with waiting a full seven days to see the next instalment of their favourite series? In fact, don’t they kind of get off on delays, as they are given plenty of time to gossip about who kissed who to their PVR’d heart’s content before starting the process all over again? Of course. But they also get kicks off of devouring a season, or five, of a new show over the course of a single weekend.
Considering the almost fanboyish nature of the current couch potato contingent, Netflix’s all-in original programming plan almost seems like the most modern, with the times, TV move in years. Viewers can watch as many episodes as they want, when they want, in whatever order they want, all at the touch of their remote (or click of their mouse). If they like the show, they can make a nightly binge of it, watching as many episodes as they can before bed. If they don’t like it, they can cut out early and tune in to one of the hundreds of other shows and movies Netflix has in its Instant Queue. But considering the two episodes I’ve seen so far, I’m willing to wager that viewers will want to go at least a couple rounds with House of Cards.
Although the previews made House of Cards out to be more of a straight-forward political drama starring two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey (American Beauty, The Usual Suspects), it’s actually quite the saucy, purposefully salted treat. Like a rack of ribs for breakfast. But in uncut, cable TV-sized form.
I know what you’re thinking. Who in their right mind would chow down on ribs before noon? Frank Underwood, that’s who. He’s the snarky and sneaky character Spacey plays on Cards.
Having been the Majority Whip for the U.S. House of Representatives for several years, the Frank we meet at the start of Cards is, quite frankly, ready to move up and onward with his career. Thus, after a new president is ushered into the White House, he just assumes he’ll be made Secretary of State. Unfortunately for him, the gig is offered to another disgustingly groomed and under-qualified candidate. Fortunately for us, this slight ignites a positively venomous fire within Frank, prompting him to kickstart a secret, oh-so-sinful, revenge campaign and whip out lines like “When the tit’s that big, everybody gets in line,” directly to the camera, like some sort of big whig Ferris Bueller.
In the first two episodes of House of Cards, we get to see Frank carefully weave several layers of deceit with the help of two strong-willed women: his wife Claire (Robin Wright), and a young, upstart online journalist (Kate Mara). I’ve heard Wright compare Claire to Lady Macbeth, hinting at the dark road ahead for both her character and Spacey’s, which could very well be lined with both figurative and literal blood. From a story standpoint, she’s spot-on.
Like Macbeth’s infamous wife, Claire seems willing to do whatever her charmingly pompous husband wants in order to help him climb his way to the top. But Claire isn’t nearly as interesting as the Bard’s aforementioned Lady. Her solo segments, which see her exerting power over the charity she works for, would be primo channel surfing stuff if this show was on broadcast TV. Her scenes with Spacey’s Frank, on the other hand, are hard to look away from. But perhaps that’s because Spacey’s in them.
As he serves as its straight-faced narrator and main character, Spacey is, by definition, the king of Cards. He deserves the title too, bringing an irresistible charm to a man that could be so easy not to like. He even sells those talking-to-the-camera scenes I mentioned before. Sure, the first few times he does a Zack Morris time-out mid-conversation, you’ll cringe a little. But as the story moves along, and his side comments get more and more cutting, you’ll start to live for those moments. They become a welcome reprieve from the intense scenarios slowly, but surely, stacking up around him. Like a sweeping cutaway shot after a rat-a-tat monologue out of one of Fincher’s more chatty films (see: the Aaron Sorkin-penned The Social Network).
In some ways, I feel like House of Cards is Fincher’s unofficial response to Sorkin’s latest TV project, the hit and miss HBO drama The Newsroom. Where that show stumbles — think one-sided portrayals of women, self-righteous monologues and overwrought music — House of Cards mainly succeeds. Although some could attribute this to Cards’ winning source material (it’s based on a U.K. miniseries of the same name), I think Fincher is owed some credit too. He’s the one who cast Spacey, his former co-worker on the film Se7en. He’s the one who decided that Mara’s character would be treated as more than just, as one character quips, a “Twitter twat.” He’s the one whose vision convinced Netflix to have the series to launch its innovative new programming block, which also includes Eli Roth’s Hemlock Grove and the upcoming revival of Arrested Development. He’s the reason why Netflix has already renewed the show for Season 2.
For these reasons, among many others, I may very well be spending my weekend holed up in my house, polishing off a couple more episodes of Cards. I just hope I can do it with as much sassy classy aplomb as you’ll see Frank does with those ribs.
Catch the entire first season of House of Cards on Netflix Canada starting Friday, Feb. 1.