New political thriller House of Cards built upon growing TV ‘binge-watching’ trends

The release of Netflix’s new original series House of Cards is a potentially momentous event in television history. Based on the British miniseries of the same name, and adapted by Beau Willimon, House of Cards tells the story of Frank Underwood, a corrupt U.S. Representative played by Kevin Spacey, as he amasses power in Washington. Netflix released all thirteen episodes of the show’s first season on a single day, acknowledging that many viewers prefer the experience of “binge-watching” to waiting week-to-week for new episodes . This could be an indication of the future of television, but unfortunately the distribution model is much more innovative than the show itself. House of Cards is a disappointingly formulaic show, but one buoyed by strong performances and direction.
People like to say we’re experiencing a “golden age of television,” and while the overall quality level of today’s dramas is certainly impressive, that golden age has been going on long enough that it has begun to stagnate. It has been fourteen years since the first episode of The Sopranos aired on HBO, and numerous shows since then have attempted to attain the same levels of critical acclaim by hewing a little too close to the model of that seminal show. We don’t need another show about a middle-aged white anti-hero with a dark secret life.
That isn’t to say the model is without warrant. Both Breaking Bad and Mad Men currently offer a twist on that archetype, and do so superbly. But the idea has been done to death, and there isn’t much room left for new ideas in that space.

House of Cards is exactly that type of show. Underwood appears to the public to be a respectable politician, but in actuality he is completely corrupt, willing to do anything to attain more power. Spacey tears into the role, and the first few episodes are full of entertaining scenes in which Underwood gleefully manipulates the people around him into doing exactly what he wants.

But over the course of the season, these scenes become rote. He’s so effective at his job that he seems almost superhuman, and even when the later episodes throw more substantial obstacles in his way, there never seems to be any real danger that he won’t come out ahead in the end.

The show inherits some of its other problems from the cable drama model as well. It makes some attempts to appear dark and edgy by including gratuitous nudity and drug use, the kinds of things you can’t show on network television, but they have long since stopped being shocking, and here just seem out of place. Robin Wright plays Underwood’s wife, and the show struggles to find plots for her outside of her marriage. Her scenes with Spacey are generally quite good, but the storyline about the charity organization she runs drags compared to the high-stakes political maneuvering occurring in the storylines around it.

That isn’t to say House of Cards is entirely formulaic. From a technical perspective, it’s actually quite impressive. David Fincher, famed director of The Social Network and Fight Club, directs the first two episodes, and establishes a dark visual style that the show’s other directors continue. The direction is strong across the board, and that distinct style helps to distinguish the show when its stories are unable to do so.

Perhaps the only parts of the show that are truly innovative are the asides, where Spacey turns to the camera and talks directly to the audience. It’s basically just a different way to deliver a voiceover monologue, but it’s a novel way to deliver exposition, and Spacey has fun with the disdainful commentary he is given to deliver.

Spacey and Wright both give good performances, as would be expected from two acclaimed actors moving to television for the first time, but the show also has some pleasantly surprising performances from its younger, secondary characters, played by Corey Stoll and Kate Mara. Stoll plays a rookie representative whom Frank begins grooming for higher office, and Mara plays a struggling reporter who turns to Frank for an inside source in the government.

A large part of the season’s progression is built on watching these two characters figure out how far they are willing to go to advance their careers, and both actors are up to the challenges presented to them. Even so, it takes a few episodes for their stories to kick off, as their introductions are somewhat lackluster: Stoll’s character has a drug problem that is handled in exactly the clichéd way you would expect, and Mara’s character has to deal with being the only person working at her paper young enough to know what Twitter is. It’s a little heavy-handed, but in both cases the stories eventually give way to more nuanced takes on modern politics.

Part of what makes House of Cards so disappointing is that it contains the elements of a much better show, but the writers are never willing to take the risks necessary to make it great. Netflix has already ordered a second season, and if the writers are willing to dismantle some of what the first season establishes, it could be a marked improvement. But if it drags on any longer than two years, and it seems likely Netflix would want it to, the formula it relies on will only become more and more transparent.

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