TV Review - House of Cards

I'm really late to the party, but I finally finished watching the first season of House of Cards, which premiered on Netflix back on February 1, 2013. I should have been sooner, given the caliber of talent behind and in front of the camera. House of Cards was adapted from a British series by Andrew Davies, which was based on novels by Michael Dobbs.

Producer and director David Fincher has certainly put his visual stamp on this TV series and made it this show's permanent style. If you've seen Fincher's Oscar-winning films like The Social Network (2010) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), then you're familiar with that style. It's dark, slick and always beautiful. Some people may point to Mad Men or Game of Thrones. I'm even partial to the look of Homeland, but the production design and cinematography for this show is the best I've seen in years.

Beau Willimon was chosen to translate British parliamentary politics into American congressional dealings. Willimon has a MFA in Play-writing from Columbia University. He's also worked on real world campaigns and under real world politicians like Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean. As the 13 episodes of this show progresses, which is nine more than the BBC series, Willimon, as the principal writer, immerses us in his version of Washington, DC, to the point where I'm not sure where real world ends and fantasy begins.

At Juilliard, Willimon wrote Farragut North, a play that George Clooney adapted into his film The Ides of March (2011). That film was about a campaign manager who becomes disillusioned when he discovers a secret about the politician he's trying to get re-elected. That film and probably Willimon's play still possessed a sense of optimism and idealism. That idealism is shattered, but still that idealism is a driving force. Arguably, romanticism is a force at work too.

House of Cards is not driven by those same forces. Optimism, idealism and romanticism are elements of this show for sure, but this series is more akin to Shakespeare's Macbeth. The main characters walk along a path of ambition, greed or thirst for power. They walk along a path that has the single destination of self-aggrandizing. There's one exception and that one exception becomes an amazing beacon and great focal point for everyone else to swirl. Literally, there is a shot in episode 7, which perfectly illustrates this.

Kevin Spacey stars as Francis Underwood or Frank, a U.S. Representative from South Carolina who is also the House Majority Whip for the Democrats. He compares his position in the House of Representatives to being like a plumber. He narrates certain moments and makes certain observations but never in voice-over. He breaks the fourth wall and makes asides directly to the camera. These asides brim with cynicism and Frank's snide and arrogant attitude.

Frank wields a lot of influences in the House and because of which he has a very cozy relationship with the President of the United States. If I had to criticize this show, it would be a similar criticism I made about ABC's Scandal. That criticism is that the President is Caucasian. Prior to Barack Obama's election, there are numerous examples in Hollywood of Black presidents. Since Obama's election, those examples seem to diminish with each opportunity.

Perhaps doing so would draw too many comparisons to President Obama. Given all the ways that Frank manipulates the President and at times undermines the commander-in-chief, perhaps the producers here didn't want to paint the first African-American in the oval office in that color. At the end of the day, Frank is a master manipulator. Frank is a secretive puppet-master. He pulls every one's strings to get them to move the way he wants so that he can get what he wants.

What Frank wants is to go from the Legislative Branch into the Executive Branch. What he wants is not to be a plumber. Episode 1 or "Chapter 1" establishes an inciting incident and then from "Chapter 2" until "Chapter 13," each episode is a chess piece where Frank is able to move a different piece strategically setting himself closer and closer to capturing the king or getting him the power he desires.

Frank basically develops a plan that can be boiled down to two things. The first is impressing the President with a new reformatory law and the second is getting rid of the Vice President. There's a lot of intricate moves and players on the board around which Frank has to navigate, but that's the crux.

The new reformatory law that Frank needs to pass is an education bill. A tool that Frank really loves is the media. Often times, he's able to wield the media like a weapon. Kate Mara co-stars as Zoe Barnes, a DC reporter who Frank is able to seduce into being his pawn for affecting the news coverage the way he chooses, especially when advancing his position on the education bill. Yet, Zoe, as written and performed, is so much more than a pawn. Her character is so nuanced and spellbinding.

Getting rid of the Vice President is a bit more complicated and involves a long con by Frank that begins with a lowly politician that Frank can whip into shape. Corey Stoll co-stars as that lowly politician named Peter Russo, a fellow U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania who has several vices including alcohol abuse and a penchant for prostitutes. What Frank asks Peter to do and watching Peter deal with his vices are probably the most compelling acting in this first season.

The performances from every single actor is beyond superb. Robin Wright who plays Claire, the wife of Frank, is a perfect Lady Macbeth. Michael Kelly who plays Doug Stamper, the chief of staff for Frank, is a perfect Banquo, loyal and dutiful right-hand. Wright and Kelly are standouts, but they're all eclipsed by Stoll whose role is probably the juiciest.

Corey Stoll's performance in this series is nothing short of fantastic. His work here is the stuff of Emmy-winning glory. Every emotion he felt is what I felt. I was engaged with him from start to finish. When he was sad, I was sad. When he was happy, I was happy. Stoll is phenomenal in that way.

I made a list of the best TV shows, but it was before seeing this series. If I had, this show would have immediately jumped to the top. There are a lot of shows yet to come, but the bar is pretty high for anything to overcome this.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-MA.
Running Time: 46-56 mins.

Spoiler alert! The first season of House of Cards had a lot of great moments, memorable moments and images that will forever stick with me. Aside from the beautiful, time-lapse photography of DC streets that open each episode, here is the list of the scenes that I really hit me when I first saw them and even re-watching them.

Chapter 1 - The episode opens with Frank euthanizing a dog, but the best moment of the first hour is Peter's sex scene where he tells the woman in his bed three words, one of which started with the letter L.

Chapter 3 - Frank delivers an incredible speech in a church. The image of the Peach water tower was also great.

Chapter 4 - Frank visits Peter's apartment and tells him not to defy him.

Chapter 5 - Frank takes nude pictures of Zoe. Frank also puts a drunk Peter in a bathtub.

Chapter 6 - Frank vs. Marty, the head of the teachers' union, on CNN and in private were both epic.

Chapter 7 - Peter is grilled by Walter about his drug use and solicitation.

Chapter 8 - Frank reminisces in his military school with an old friend and former male lover. Peter fights Paul, the head of the shipbuilders.

Chapter 9 - Zoe says she's a whore.

Chapter 11 - Peter calls his daughter.

Chapter 13 - Frank gets a visit from Remy, the lobbyist. Claire visits Jillian whose pregnant.


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