February 3, 2013

THE SKED NETFLIX REVIEW: “House of Cards” Episodes 1-2


The historical significance of HOUSE OF CARDS in the evolution of television is by now well-established.  It’s the first original production created specifically for Netflix, and the company made its first bet a huge one:  26 one-hour episodes, 2 full seasons worth, ordered without even a pilot (at a reported cost of $100M), and put together by a creative team that includes A-list talent like director David Fincher, writer Beau Willimon (The Ides of March), and a cast headed by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.  Additionally, Netflix threw the concept of “scheduling” out the window by making all 13 episodes of Season 1 available simultaneously on Day 1.  The idea was to allow and even encourage “binge-watching” and the resulting buzz, although as it turns out, this version of House of Cards doesn’t evidence, in its first couple of hours, the kind of hurtling pace and cliffhanger format that encourages consuming many hours at once.

Cards is based on a set of British miniseries from the 1990s (shown here on Masterpiece Theatre), which were written by Andrew Davies and based on novels by Michael Dobbs.  At least in the initial Netflix episodes, the basic story hews fairly closely to the original.  Francis Underwood (Spacey; in the British version, he was named Urquhart and played by Ian Richardson) is a high-ranking South Carolina member of the House of Representatives who serves as Majority Whip, his job to gather the necessary votes so that legislation can pass the House.  Loyal for years, he thinks he’s finally about to ascend to a Cabinet post when a new President takes office, but instead he’s passed over for promotion, and he bitterly begins to plot against his own President and the administration, undercutting proposed bills and appointments with the help of his wife Claire (Wright) and an ambitious young reporter (here named Zoe Barnes and played by Kate Mara).  The new show even retains Urquhart’s trademark phrase when he’s carefully providing information without linking himself to it:  “You might very well think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.”  (Season 2, by necessity, will diverge from the British show, since that season concerned the conflict between Urquhart and the King of England.)

There are a few major differences between the British and American series.  For one thing, apparently Cards is no longer a black comedy.  Underwood still addresses the camera and audience directly with sardonic comments, as Urquhart did, but minus the glee in his increasingly bad behavior that Richardson had, and Spacey’s general demeanor is far more serious than Richardson’s was.  The new Cards is also more than triple the length of the original 4-hour miniseries, and so already we can see that the role of his wife has been greatly expanded (and she’s been made considerably more overtly evil than her British counterpart was initially presented as being), and that the new role of a senior reporter (Constance Zimmer) has been added to Zoe’s newsroom, one who will presumably start probing into the relationship between Zoe and her mysterious source.  A British PR expert whose vices were exploited by Urquhart has been shifted to become another member of the House (Corey Stoll) this time around.  Aficionados of the original series will also note that this Francis doesn’t appear to have a cherished place on the Capitol roof for his moments alone, indicating that this edition won’t repeat that show’s iconic ending.

The relatively stately pace and somber tone don’t particularly help the drama, which in Britain made use of swift pace and humor to help ease its way over the more far-fetched plot turns.  Spacey, who could certainly have replicated the Richard III-ish tone of Urquhart, considering that he’s himself played Richard on stage as well as many anti-heroes on screen, is much more subdued here than one might expect, making Underwood more emotionally convincing but less fun to watch.  So far, the show also isn’t playing up the queasy romantic link that existed between Urquhart and the reporter, which may be a good thing, but also turns their relationship into something more professional and less horribly fascinating.

Under Fincher’s direction, the first two hours are predictably impeccable, every shot (the photography is by Eigil Bryld, who was recently behind the camera for David Chase’s Not Fade Away) beautifully framed and every camera movement well structured.  The project isn’t, however, one of Fincher’s more visually exciting–it naturally most resembles The Social Network with its nonstop dialogue, but this time lacking Aaron Sorkin’s sparkplug script, or a figure at its center as mesmerizing as the movie’s version of Mark Zuckerberg.

The 11 additional hours of House of Cards that already exist for the watching with the click of a button leave plenty of time for it to become more ambitious and surprising, and we’ll be looking at those in time.  The first section of the show is very solid, a piece that certainly wouldn’t be out of place on HBO or AMC, and yet not quite game-changing in the way that its technology and business model already are.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."