March 13, 2013

THE SKED NETFLIX REVIEW: “House of Cards” (Full Season)


It took me just under 6 weeks to get through the 13 hours of HOUSE OF CARDS, the first original Netflix series.  That’s a little less than half the time a regular weekly run would have taken, although nowhere near the weekend binge-viewing that some were planning when all the episodes of Season 1 were released on February 1.  Any of those approaches would have been fine with Netflix, as would watching one episode per month, or even watching the first few and then never quite getting back to the rest (although definitely meaning to).  Personally I found the simultaneous release of all episodes something of a mixed blessing:  it was great to be able to watch whatever and whenever I wanted, but I also missed the shared excitement (Brody is working with Abu Nazir!  I knew it!) of the hours after a major episode airs, when all the fans react at once.  For its part, Netflix cares only that I stayed a subscriber, and that I was aware House existed and valued it as an addition to the company’s package of programming–it’s the same reason HBO must chuckle when people fixate over the overnight ratings for Girls.

In any case, we’ll know more when Netflix announces its membership data for this quarter, but on its face, House seems to have accomplished what the company was hoping it would.  The show got roughly the scale of buzz and publicity that would normally accompany a new series on HBO, and the response was generally favorable.  Right now the service is very much pitching its offerings to the middle-aged prestige viewer, what with House, the upcoming return of cult series Arrested Development, and the Ricky Gervais series Derek, but no doubt it will widen its approach as its campaign to be considered a new form of “network” proceeds.  Certainly Netflix hasn’t skimped on its investment, with estimates that its 26-episode commitment to House of Cards alone is $125M+.

Of course, House of Cards isn’t just a piece of home entertainment business history, it’s also a TV show, the story of Congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his ruthlessly Machiavellian plots to gain power and position.  By and large it’s a good one, too, although not at the level of the very best we’ve become used to seeing on cable television over the past decade.  More than anything, House would have benefited from a slightly less generous Netflix deal:  its 13-episode initial season would have been tighter and more entertaining at 9 or 10 hours. The first to be scaled down would have been the ones that took Frank back to his home district to solve some local disputes and prove how clever he was–a fact made clear many times over in other storylines–and to his alma mater for a reunion with old buddies, which was meant to humanize him with the revelation that he’d turned his back on a meaningful gay college romance, perhaps the true love of his life.  Also, a little less of our lives spent watching Frank pass the education bill would have been a good thing.

House was a fascinating piece of adaptation, because it took the main storyline and characters of the 1990 British miniseries of the same title, but completely changed its tone, transforming a very British black comedy (23-year old SPOILER ALERT:  the original show ends with Frank’s equivalent, member of Parliament Francis Urquhart, throwing a pesky reporter off the roof of the House of Parliament) into a totally serious American drama.  At its best, House had the crackling feel of Farragut North, the excellent play about politics written by US series creator Beau Willimon that became the somewhat soapier movie The Ides of March.  Willimon has a great ability to write about smart people scheming against other smart people, and the plotting here was far more convincing than on the BBC series, conveying the feel that here, more than on the eloquent but endlessly hopeful The West Wing, we were truly seeing how high-level politicians practice their craft.

Another advantage of Willimon’s approach is that the the one-dimensional supporting characters of the British series are all far more interesting and complex.  That was especially true of Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), the addict who becomes Frank’s patsy; his British equivalent, a PR expert, was merely pitiful and clearly doomed from the start, but Russo was a full-fledged human being for whom we rooted and eventually mourned.  Likewise, Frank’s wife Claire (Robin Wright), not much more than a supportive cipher in the UK series, here has her own storylines (sometimes too many of them) and crises.  The reporter character Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara)–safely away from roofs when Netflix Season 1 ends–is much less worshipfully idealistic and far more ambitious than her British parallel, and mercifully the “Call me Daddy” aspect of her affair with Frank has been minimized.

While in many ways more admirable than the original series, the Netflix House is also somewhat less fun.  Ian Richardson, as Urquhart, was a Richard III-like epic villain, who implicated us in his dastardly plans with intimate soliloquies delivered straight to the camera.  Frank Underwood is a much more conventionally-scaled, realistic ruthless politician, and although reptilian is something Kevin Spacey does very well, we’re always at one remove from his character, and the retained device of removing the 4th wall has had little dramatic payoff.  Similarly, while Zoe is a more complicated individual than the young reporter was in the UK, her character lacks some of the original version’s clarity.

House of Cards may not have been Emmy-worthy in its first season, but it’s been well worth watching, especially as the pace accelerated and Frank’s intent became clear in the second half of the drama.  David Fincher established a moody, elegant visual template as director of  the initial 2 hours, which was taken up by film and TV luminaries like Joel Schumacher, Allen Coulter, James Foley, Charles McDougall and Carl Franklin.  The cast is superb, with first-rate supporting work by Michael Kelly as Frank’s main henchman (who, if the series follows the British outline, will have more to do in Season 2), Kristen Connolly as Russo’s aide and lover, Sakina Jaffrey as a President’s Chief of Staff who’s always one step behind Frank, Constance Zimmer as a reporting colleague of Zoe’s, and Gerald McRaney as a billionaire who figures into the last few episodes (McRaney is having a great season, what with this and his marvelous turn on Justified).

Netflix probably can’t keep spending money on its shows like it has on House of Games, but it has its share of intriguing series coming up, including a thriller starring Famke Janssen, and the new series from Jenji Kohan, creator of Weeds.  Innovative business models aside, there can never be too much good television, so it’s a pleasure to welcome this new “network” to the game.



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."