‘House of Cards’: Power corrupts (plus other non-breaking news)


Kevin Spacey and Michael Kelly in a scene from Netflix's “House of Cards.” (Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix)
Hank Stuever
TV critic January 31, 2013

And to think we used to complain about the dearth of Washington-related shows on television. Now we have the opposite problem — more fictitious administrations than anyone can keep track of, more back stabbing, bed hopping, betraying, compromising and scandalmongering than our poor capital can bear. I am therefore preparing to introduce legislation that will effect an immediate reduction in such grandiose depictions of politics. I am calling it Kevin’s Law.

Kevin as in Spacey, referencing his sinister and at times corny lead role as the House majority whip in “House of Cards,” a slick new 13-episode series that unfurls Friday, in its entirety, on Netflix.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation. View Archive

As you’ve probably heard, the subscription movie service is forging into the original programming business, guided by the mandates of today’s on-demand viewers, who want what they want, when they want it and how they want it. That’s called power.

As it happens, “House of Cards” (based on a British miniseries from eons ago, based on a novel) is mostly concerned with age-old ruminations on the corrosive but exhilarating power of power: “Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts fallin’ apart after 10 years,” Spacey’s character, Rep. Francis “Frank” Underwood (D-Antebellumville), tells us in an on-again off-again honeysuckle accent. “Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.”

So, on the iffy chance that “House of Cards” draws you in and you simply cannot stop watching, then, yes, you may power-binge your way through all 13 hours at once. (“Cancel everything!” as Frank likes to bark at his staff.) Thus, finally, can Netflix streamers be the ones who are ahead of ye wretched cable and satellite subscribers. No more will they holler “SPOILER ALERT, PLEASE!” at everyone who’d like to enter a conversation about what they happened to see on TV last night. The tables have turned.

Presuming, of course, that “House of Cards” is a show anyone will consider retweetable must-see television requiring breathless recaps. It’s my sad duty to rain on that particular inaugural parade — at least judging from the two David Fincher-directed episodes critics were allowed to see early.

Although no expense has been spared, “House of Cards” appears to suffer from the same ambitious but weighty seriousness that afflicted Starz’s “Boss.” As with that show, the cinematography is moody and gorgeous. The writing is broad. The arcs are wide. The corruption is all-consuming. The sympathetic characters are nonexistent. And most important, the lead actor is a known scenery-chewer.

As a new president-elect is picking his Cabinet, Spacey’s Frank prepares to be nominated for secretary of state, a position he was promised during the campaign.

But things go another way, and so Frank covertly launches a bitter and complicated revenge scenario, aided by his chief of staff (Michael Kelly), his ice-queen wife (Robin Wright), a party-boy congressman from Pennsylvania (Corey Stoll), and, naturally, a brash young reporter, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), who works at a Washington Post-like newspaper and who would do anything to cover “what’s behind the veil” of power in the Capitol hallways and get herself off what she erroneously calls the “Fairfax County Council” beat. (From which she has filed copy about jogging trails in Rock Creek Park. Girl gets around.)

“House of Cards” is by no means a total disaster. It’s pretty to look at, and, if your day has not already been consumed with Type A personalities inside the Beltway, then it may fall well within your definition of entertainment. If, on the other hand, you’ve got even the slightest case of Washington fatigue, then you should run screaming. (I mean, after a day of Chuck Hagel confirmation grillings, are you sure you want to spend your weekend curled up with this?)

And almost anyone should be frightened off by the show’s unwise narrative trope, in which Spacey breaks the fourth wall to biliously mansplain the unwritten rules of dirty politics to the viewer. He might as well break out in Capitol Steps show tune parodies — it would seem less silly.

Some may grouse that, once again, another city besides Washington is playing the part of Washington. (This time it’s Baltimore.) “House of Cards” makes lovely use of its D.C. exterior shots and aerials and even pulls off the rare trick of filming a clandestine meeting between Frank and Zoe in an actual Metro station. I have turned a corner (in the actual Washington) on this debate and will no longer complain about TV shows that are about us but not filmed here. Our traffic is bad enough. Who needs the hassle?

“House of Cards” is written and steered by Beau Willimon (whose stage play “Farragut North” became the movie “The Ides of March”), with pedigree directing from Fincher (who is also a producer); directors of later episodes, including Joel Schumacher, were reportedly given an artistic latitude wider than TV directors usually get.

Netflix is proud of the show (it has confidently ordered a second season) and aspires to be your premium network of choice someday very soon. Here, with Netflix’s first big series, the network has done everything right and still got it sort of wrong. In other words, welcome to television.

House of Cards

(about one hour per episode) All 13 episodes are available on Netflix starting Friday.

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