House of Cards (2013): Season 1
The era of the big three television networks is gone. I can readily recall when all the available TV could be enumerated on two hands with several fingers to spare. Then the explosion of cable television with literally hundreds of niche networks many devoted to movies of all sorts. When the upper echelon including HBO and Showtime entered the realm of original weekly programming some were skeptical but a venue free from FCC and MPAA oversight the ability to provide mature content and emotionally intense themes soon made these networks fertile ground form some of the best series ever to display in your home. In quick succession the basic cable channels followed suite with AMC and FX now recognized as leaders in taught dramatic offerings. Now the streaming video services have entered the fray with Netflix and Hulu Plus providing original content. Netflix may have begun as a cheap and easy replacement for the local video store but now they are on the cusp of rivaling the giants in the field; HBO, Showtime and Starz. They are releasing entire seasons of thirteen episodes at once so you can devour their series in marathon sessions. With superior quality like they have offered so far you will be quite inclined to do so. The first of these series to transition from high definition steaming video through your Netflix app to Blu-ray is ‘Houses of Cards.
Originally this was a miniseries in Brittan that expanded into a highly popular trilogy. The first act was reworked to fit the specifics of the American political machinery and the results are spec tactual. Not only does the story survive the change from parliamentary to tripartite government it thrived. Unlike many series that immigrate to the States this one retained the quality and impact of the original becoming a diluted shadow of what the BBC had to offer. The core of how this was feasible is no matter what the specific details of how a government is structured and run the personalities that gravitate to this form of ‘ Public Service’ are typically cut from the same emotional cloth possessing the same psychological profiles. Although the American variation works incredibly well on its own merits an entirely new dimension is achieved watching back to back with the British counterpart. This offers a rare opportunity to compare our cultures with fundamentally the same archetypes of personalities in the same circumstances colored but distinctive cultural influences.
Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is a United States Congressman from South Carolina. He is better known as Frank but such a familiarity is part of a carefully crafted façade necessary to best perform his job. That function is much wider in scope than just a Congressman he serves as the House Majority Whip, one of the most powerful positions in the halls of Congress although frequently misunderstood or underestimated by the general public. This position affords Frank with a significant amount of power with his p political party, the Democrats, and access to the policy makers that only a handful can boast. He has been meticulously grooming his abilities for this post since is childhood where he attended the prestigious military boarding school the Sentinel. It was there that he acquired the skills and control necessary for a Congressional whip and the lifelong contacts to be extremely successful at what he does. His wife Clare (Robin Wright) runs a nonprofit environmental organization, the Clean Water Initiative which is a political action group. There are a few stylistic elements that are used to construct the persona of Frank that make this series a work of art. First a man who wields such political might retains a touchstone to his Southern roots by going to a DC restaurant specializing in Southern style ribs. The owner of the place makes his food and attentive ear available to Frank any time of the day or night demonstrating the two men go back quite a ways. The most obvious stylistic device is Frank constantly breaking the fourth wall directly addressing the audience. The English version of the character modeled this affectation after Shakespeare’s Richard III and Macbeth while Spacey appears to have molded his approach to the technique after the scheming Iago in Othello. In both cases the effect is powerful; pulling the audience into the recesses of the halls of power and forming an amazingly efficient and entertaining way of providing the thick layer of exposition required following the multitude of plot threads, twist and hidden agendas critical to following this delightfully complicated and textured story.
In initially it is rather difficult to ascertain Frank’s ultimate motives and plans for his immediate goals. The series breaks the old adage that you should never witness the making of sausages or the running of government. Frank is absolutely ruthless a grand master chess player who manipulates people, politics and government to achieve his goals. Even people loyal to him like U.S. Representative Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) can be used as a sacrificial goat whose life and career are mere pawns in Frank’s political machinations. Loyalty is rewarded by Frank but only to the extent you are still of use to him. A classic demonstration of this is an ambitious reporter, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) who provides sexual favors for Underwood in return for the inside scope of upcoming events. This rapidly elevates her career until her political assistance evaporates. Frank’s ambitious are played close to the vest with the audience kept in the dark for certain crucial elements and objectives. The President of the United States, Garrett Walker (Michael Gill, Vice President Jim Matthews (Dan Ziskie) and White House Chief of Staff, Linda Vasquez (Constance Zimmer) are traditionally the most powerful people in national politics but to Frank they are just other pieces on his chess board or perhaps better thought of as marionettes with Frank standing behind them pulling their strings.
Netflix took their initial outing in original series directly to the pinnacle of the field on every level. The executive producer is famed filmmaker David Fincher. As the creator of ‘Se7en’, ‘Fight Club’ and the Americanized version of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ he is no stranger to intensely crafted thrillers with strong dependencies on covert plot threads, character development and circumstances that twist the perceptions of what is actually going on. In most of his works repeated viewings are essential to derive the totality of the story. He met Spacey on ‘Se7en’ and he joined the project not only as the leading man but sharing the responsibilities of executive producer. This multitalented man brings his twice Oscar winning abilities in front of the camera along with considerable experience in production. Together this is a perfect modernization of a traditional Shakespearian historical tragedy. Rather than conveying the story through the actions of Kings this series concentrates on how the true power in a government is manipulated by a group of men with the drive, ambition and skills to make them the apex predator in an ocean of sharks. Spacey and Wight anchor a dream cast of the very best journeyman actors in this current generation. Kate Mara ideally embodies the reporter looking for rapid career growth with amazing skill. As a little tidbit of trivia her sister Rooney portrayed the titular tattooed heroine in Fincher’s start to the American start to the Millennium trilogy.
This series has captured the quintessence of a play by the Bard. It cuts though the superfluous distilling very essence of the men that live in the halls of power. The tragedy infused in the heart of this work extends beyond the collateral damage done to the lesser pieces sacrificed to Frank’s plan but the consistent erosion of Underwood’s humanity as he moves ever closer to the position he coverts. Thankfully this series has been given the go ahead for a second season.