Netflix’s bold television experiment ends up a resounding success… at least for the audience.
Netflix is taking a bold step into the future of television this week with the launch of its House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey. The premiere episode was directed by David Fincher(Seven, The Social Network). By producing the show themselves, Netflix will be limiting its viewership solely to its streaming video customers. At a reported 100 million dollar cost, this is a big gamble. No one has really tried this sort of thing before, and its difficult to even figure out how to measure its success financially. Measuring its success as a television show, on the other hand, is easy. Its a winner.
Kevin Spacey plays House Majority Whip Frank Underwood, and he is a mean, vindictive, scheming animal. And he is absolutely likable. Spacey is at his dead-eyed, slack-jawed best as Frank deviously manipulates everyone around him while they continue to underestimate him, his charming southern drawl perhaps lulling them into a false sense of security. An early scene makes Frank seem an almost pitiable lead, but he soon quashes any notion of being weak or defeated.
Yet for all his scheming and occasional cruelty, It’s easy to like Frank. He may be lying through his teeth with every other word, but it never feels like he is being false with us, the viewers. To that end he occasionally even breaks the fourth wall to fill us in on an important detail, or maybe just to provide an insightful bit of commentary on what we’ve just seen. Frank’s story is the one he is going to show us, and we are going to like it, or else. The connection between Frank and the viewer seems stronger than storyteller and audience, though. Frank is alone in a lot of what he does, his wife being his only true ally. It almost feels like Frank is opening up to us because maybe we’re the only friend he has. Or maybe he’s just manipulating us into thinking that…
Frank’s wife is a cold and calculating Lady MacBeth played by Robin Wright(The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), and she’s a little harder to drum up empathy for. Still, Frank loves her “more than sharks love blood,” so we can put up with her pitiless demeanor and borderline cruelty. Kate Mara(American Horror Story) plays a hungry DC journalist, heavy on ambition but light on experience. She’s in the right place at the right time(and wearing the right dress) to be propelled into an alliance with Frank. She’s eager and young and we can only imagine this ending poorly for her, but for the moment she’s on Frank’s team, and there’s really no safer place to be.
The story is centered on Frank’s strategy for exacting revenge and political advancement. It’s not yet clear which of these is his primary goal. We see the machinations of high level politics here, but this isn’t a show about politics. Its about politicians. This is a character drama and it never lets itself get bogged down in the minutiae of the political dealings.
David Fincher directed the first two episodes, and his involvement is clear by the bland, muted colour palette and the slow, deliberate roaming camera The scenes set inside a DC newspaper look like they could have been pulled right out of Zodiac. The writing by Beau Willimon is sharp and often witty; the dialogue captures each character vividly and uniquely.
How this experiment will ultimately pan out for Netflix remains to be seen, but delivery method aside, this is top-notch programming. It’s every bit as good as what we have come to expect from top-tier pay-for-cable providers like HBO and Showtime, if not better.