Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Netflix Streaming Review - House of Cards

"Y'know, maybe that whole "Gwnyeth-Paltrow-head-in-a-box-thing" WAS a bit over the top..."
While watching the season finale of House of Cards last week, Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood uttered a line that I felt encapsulated the philosophy of the show oh so perfectly.  Underwood is speaking to us, the viewers (one of the highlights of the show is Spacey's constant breaking of the fourth wall to fill us in on his mindset and strategic decisions), while seemingly alone in the church frequented by the high and mighty of Capitol Hill.  Frank has just engaged and gone through with a series of, well, let's just say slightly nefarious maneuvers in order to promote his own political standing, and seems to be reflecting, or at the very minimum, engaging in what he would consider the portrayal of reflection.  He goes on a near rant that I won't spoil, but essentially concludes with the line, "I pray to myself, for myself."  I ate it up.

House of Cards knows exactly what kind of show it wants to be and couldn't give two sh*ts about anyone that disagrees.  The show exudes confidence, it's narrative bombastic and cocky, like a nineteen year old first-time comic walking on stage and dropping a balls-to-the-wall rape joke.  It's so risky, so ballsy, that I couldn't help but be immediately on board from episode one.  And trust me, there are a dozen of other reasons why I was quickly hooked, but it was that gutsiness that grabbed me first.

From what I've read from most show runners, it usually takes a show one season for a show to really find its legs.  There are of course exceptions, with The Wire being probably being the ultimate example.  Now I'm not saying that House of Cards is on par with the The Wire, not at all.  But what I am saying is that if a show has a supremely clear vision of what it wants to be, has the capital to back it up in conjunction with a backer that ONLY wants to get out of the way and let creative do their thing (seriously, read a profile of Netflix's Reed Hastings; he's probably the coolest CEO in the US), AND you bring in some of the most talented people Hollywood has to offer, you're very likely going to get something brilliant.

Now to fill those in who aren't completely familiar with the show, House of Cards centers around Frank Underwood, as (amazingly) portrayed by Kevin Spacey, a brilliant, charming and utterly ruthless Democratic House Representative from South Carolina.  The show opens with Spacey being passed up for a key role in the new President's cabinet, and thus the action commences.

I've heard from a number of people that House of Cards is the anti-West Wing when it comes to its portrayal of Washington, DC.  Now I've never seen The West Wing, but from what I can garner people who say that are pretty much comparing how the two shows portray the capital.  The West Wing, from what I understand, is a very idealistic view of government, both in its motivations and actions.  House of Cards is not that.  But then again, House of Cards never struck me as being about government.  I mean the basic premise of this show could taken place in a corporation, a school, a church, a gang.  House of Cards is so much more than the portrayal of an institution.  It's the portrayal of human nature, power and corruption.  And it's not pretty.

My one concern about the show, when I was about halfway through the season, was I realized there was virtually no one to root for.  And as strong as the show was, I began to wonder if it would fall prey to what seemingly all great serial dramas become prey to:  they're greatest strength becomes the most poignant way in which to criticize them.  Think about The Wire, The Sopranos and Mad Men.  The Wire, one of the greatest social critiques of modern society in the last decade, got a biiiiiit preachy Season 5.  The Sopranos, which probably had the most compelling protagonist in television history, got so pretentiously wrapped up in Tony's dream sequences you forgot you were watching a show about the mafia and family.  And Mad Men, for all of its unbelievably thematic ambition, can at times make social ennui seem like The Black Plague 2.0.

What I'm trying to get at is House of Cards teeters that line between forceful but introspective cynicism and brutal blunt cynicism very closely.  If it weren't for some interesting character developments in the second half of Season 1, I'm afraid the latter may have been the result.  And what, somewhat ironically, makes this most challenging, is Spacey.  His character is a force of nature and his portrayal is utterly captivating.  But can you have a protagonist that doesn't develop, just destroys?  I don't know, but I am very interested to see the direction the writers take the show in Season 2.

Grade - A-

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