TV review: House of Cards (season 1)

Netflix’s first foray into producing TV series begins with House of Cards, with the help of independent studio Media Rights Capital, David Fincher and Kevin Spacey.

Netflix’s arrival on the scene brings with it a new strategy, releasing all thirteen episodes of the first season at once. This has ultimately led to binge marathons, and people not knowing what episodes they can talk about with friends for fear of spoilers!

Adapted for an American audience from the original BBC miniseries, HoC follows the ambitions of a politician who claws his way past obstacles with complete disregard for such quaint things like honour, decency and human lives in general.

Francis Underwood, after just thirteen episodes has already planted himself a position in the upper echelons of TV badass ambiguously evil characters, accompanying such luminaries like Walter White, Tony Soprano and Al Swearengen. Underwood would not exist without Kevin Spacey, who has reminded me why he’s one of my favourite actors. I felt like I was seeing an old friend on screen, someone who I haven’t seen in a long while.

HoCĀ  is one of those instances that makes sense for a remake. It’s not just a simple case of replacing Asians with Caucasians (hey, that’s why Americans make remakes, right?) this series replaces one political system with another. You don’t have to know much about American politics to enjoy this however. the conflicts are universal: greed, ambition, corruption. HoC is a scathing mockery of politics, which I sincerely hope is eye-opening for anybody naive enough to believe politics is anything other than a game for privileged players.

Manipulating lives got so boring they decided to model for Gap in their spare time.

Manipulating lives got so boring they decided to model for Gap in their spare time.

What makes this series stand out is its playful breaking of the fourth wall, which consists of Underwood addressing the viewer to explain his thought-process or deliver exposition. This involves plenty of wry glances at the camera, and the way Spacey does it is absolutely comedic genius, his sardonic eyes looking us up and down in contempt.

So, let’s go into what the actual story is about briefly, for any who are still on the fence deciding if they should watch or not. Underwood is the house majority whip for the Democratic party, and he wants nothing less than absolute power. With the help of his seemingly ice cold wife Claire (played by Robin Wright who is now on my radar) he will stop at nothing to climb his way up the food chain taking advantage of anyone and anything. This includes a hungry journalist new to the scene, Zoe (played by Kate Mara) who is written brilliantly. Neither naive, cynical, opportunistic or ethical, yet all of them at the same time. Humans are always in flux, and the script reflects it so well. Another major character pulled into Underwood’s web is an alcoholic druggie yet idealistic politician Russo (played by the sometimes scene-stealing Corey Stoll).

Imagine Game of Thrones with a bit of Breaking Bad and a dash of Social Network, and you’re coming close to visualising what HoC feels like while you’re watching it. Its clinical (cynical?) observation of humans, their desire to exceed, and their relationship to technology and shifting landscapes. HoC is probably the only series I’ve seen that tackles the interconnectedness of technology seamlessly and not in a stupid Hollywood way. Hollywood films have not heard of mouses, for example, everyone just uses keyboards. Well in HoC, everyone uses their cellphones and twitter, and not in a eye-rolling way, but the way we use them in real life, and more importantly to the service of the story being told.

"You be Deep Throat this time. I'll be Woodward. 'kay?"

“You be Deep Throat this time. I’ll be Woodward. ‘kay?”

Towards the latter half of the series HoC turns into All The President’s Men as alliances shift and procedural investigation takes hold in order to catch up with the litany of offences Underwood has left in his wake. It’s a great way to keep up the heat on the character because somewhat disappointingly he doesn’t really have much of a nemesis in the story, he’s just too good. His only antagonist is time itself, no mere mortal.

There is brilliant screenwriting at play, propelled by Beau Willimon’s influence throughout and complimented by consistently great direction which is spearheaded by Fincher’s opening two episodes. HoC is essential viewing and addictive, brilliantly acted and executed, a product of its time. It’s populated by dislikable characters, but only because their humanity is so clearly explored and not hidden away. Nobody is perfect, though some revel in their imperfection and hold it as a badge of honour.

Underwood knows he is not like most, and he doesn’t care. In fact he sees it as his strength. He is not shackled by notions followed by the majority. When he wants something he takes it. This is not to say he’s not human, as the series does explore his emotions to a degree. He is definitely flesh and blood, not just a metaphor for Shakespearean menace, intrigue and tragedy.

So basically: watch this damn show.

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