REVIEW: ‘House of Cards’ Shifts the Paradigm Without Collapsing
It’s not just that television has usurped the supremacy of quality scripted drama and comedy from theatrical, now it’s the way that content is being viewed that is changing the way entertainment is created and delivered. Because of Netflix and other online streaming content providerspeople have been watching entire seasons in one sitting, or in a few sittings, as I just did to write this review of House of Cards, which is why this post is going up on a Saturday rather than a Thursday or Friday as it should have. As a filmed content producer myself, I quickly realized I had to watch all thirteen episodes before I could reasonably comment on the series as a whole, rather than just catch a few and wing it from there.
It’s all becoming incredibly meta. I know you want to know whether House of Cards is good or bad, but indulge me a moment.
Having itself created this habit of viewers watching entire seasons at once, Netflix, the producer of House of Cards, released the entire season on the same day, making as bold a bid to change the way content is delivered as the series’ lead character, the aptly named hyper-Machiavellian Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), might manipulate the course of domestic and world affairs to get his agenda pushed forward.
As of the launch of this superlative series created by Beau Willimon (Ides of March), Netflix has made a successful move to position itself alongside the likes of HBO and Showtime as a creator of high-quality premium content. For those who might not remember, HBO and Showtime were once themselves just like Netflix, simply airing on premium cable entertainment created by Hollywood, the attraction being that feature films were made available to viewers before the networks showed them, and there was no commercial interruption, thereby creating a whole new income stream for the studios, etcetera. And everyone was very happy.
But this idea of putting the whole series up at once is a game changer in terms of the way the content is planned and created in the first place, which is why I realized midway through episode four that I wasn’t going to get away with reviewing the show just based on a few standalone episodes; none of them are standalone. I could no more review House of Cards in the usual way than I could review a book just based on its first few chapters.
Indeed, a little poking around the IMDb reveals that the episodes on this show are referred to as ‘chapters,’ which is helpful to know before you embark on the odyssey of watching this. Fringe this is not. A filmed thirteen-hour political-thriller novel it is.
Having said that, the first season of HOC is also just the first book in a series—call it a Game of Thrones without the magical and fantasy bits, seeped in a profound, realistic understanding of how this nation’s government works, of the changing nature of political journalism, and how both are affected by each other’s nature and how in turn that changes the way information is gathered and delivered.
Again, all terribly meta if you allow yourself to go there. But let me review the show’s merits as entertainment.
The first two chapters are directed by David Fincher, and he who directs the pilot sets the tone and look for the show for its entire run—other directors coming in, including one as renowned as Joel Schumacher, who directed two episodes of HOC, are simply overseeing a production where the sets, lighting, shooting style and characterizations are already determined and immutable. While I enjoyed Willimon’s other understated political thriller Ides of March, which was directed by George Clooney, both he and Netflix have scored a huge coup by having Fincher set this series up. That, and having Kevin Spacey star as Underwood.
Having a unique angle on a tried and true genre is a solid foundation for a series, and House of Cards has it: Congressman Underwood is the House Majority Whip, a position that wields considerable influence, and has access to the White House, but isn’t in it. The nature of his job—making sure all members of the party toe the line on major policy issues, vote unilaterally on bills, and so forth—makes him a petty tyrant, albeit one that has a few masters himself, in particular the President, if he happens to be in his party, which is the case here. The other unusual angle is that Underwood is a Democrat, and liberals are never painted as so villainous by the Hollywood establishment.
House of Cards correctly portrays the politicos of Washington, D.C. as a massive Shakespearean theater troupe living the plays in its repertoire 24/7, with more of the drama happening backstage than on. The conceit of HOC doffing its hat to Shakespeare is made pointedly from the start—Underwood repeatedly makes asides directly into the camera in the manner of a villain or hero of the Bard’s, or anyone writing drama from that period. Specifically, the major reference seems to be Richard III, although by the time I’d grown accustomed to those somewhat intrusive asides and stopped wondering if I was annoyed by them, if they were trying to “make fetch happen” (if you have to ask…), I realized that the show is referencing all of the English history plays, as well as the Roman (such as Coriolanus and Julius Caesar) and Macbeth, which is properly speaking one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, not a history—oh, go on, might as well throw Othello in there, too, for when Underwood gets particularly Iago with it.
The Macbeth reference is particularly true when it comes to the role of Underwood’s wife, Claire, played by Robin Wright, except she is no more Lady Macbeth than Underwood himself is Macbeth. As a couple, they are simply Machiavellian as well as Shakespearean as well as practitioners of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War; in other words, they are high-ranking politicians in the most powerful nation in the world, and behave very much as the beasts they truly are in real life: manipulative, stressed out, remorseless, idealistic, selfish, cruel. Above all, they have huge balls. And watching people with huge balls doing things that most of us wouldn’t engage in for all the Xanax and confidence boosters in the world, and in a completely believable way, makes for riveting drama.
We’ve seen these people before in myriad TV shows and films, read about them in enough political thrillers to paper JFK and Heathrow airports several times over. The trick is the way the show or film or book is executed, and in that respect House of Cards does an admirable job technically—script, performance, overall production are all worthy of Fincher on a budget. But above all this show does it differently than anything that has come before, and that’s precisely because of this chapter quality that eliminates the need for a hook or a cliffhanger at the end of every episode. And that is a huge game changer when it comes to scripted drama, even if the season itself leaves off when the stakes are as high as they can get given the buildup from the previous twelve episodes, just like a normal TV series. Some devices must remain the same, especially if you’re angling for new Netflix subscribers, or simply trying to retain the ones you already have and possibly charge them more than the current $7.99 per month (a proposition being met with a lot of resistance).
Here’s a Shakespearean aside of my own: Downton Abbey ignored this cliffhanger rule at its peril the last season. The final episode was rightly panned as disappointing. I agree. I can’t even give it credit for stylishly transforming a deus ex machina into a cricket match that implies everyone is living happily ever after, of all weirdo moves. This is drama, people! Julian Fellowes might do well to take a page out of Willimon’s playbook and brush up on his Shakespeare.
Of all the characters on House of Cards, it is Robin Wright’s I am most ambivalent about. I grew up with women like this, and they can be cold, yes, stylish, certainly, impenetrable, perhaps, but I can’t get past… her great haircut and coloring. Her shoes. Her dress. The way she glides across a room. The right blush of no-makeup-look lipstick she wears. But most of all I can’t get past the fact she is so feeling-less. I’m sure Wright has been directed to underplay her, but while I’m not asking for Lady Macbeth histrionics, I find myself wondering whether Claire is meant to be a sociopath or autistic. And I would, except in certain instances you’re asked to believe she does have a conscience, feels remorse, does do some things for emotional, humane reasons rather just merely advancing her husband’s or her own agenda. So it’s not just ambivalence on my part, it’s outright confusion. Could it be that Willimon either doesn’t write women very well or with much complexity? Or is this deliberate? Or is it a miscast with how the character is written? Or is it simply an entirely subjective opinion on my part, which a Robin Wright fan would disagree with?
Let’s look for clues about this dilemma in the other female lead, the young journalist Zoe, played by Rooney Mara’s sister, Kate. I am sure that Kate Mara is so tired of being referred to as Rooney’s sister by now, but my mentioning the familial relationship is deliberate. In my professional opinion, both Rooney and Kate are of equal caliber as actresses, which is to say versatile, solid and exceptional. But Rooney is blessed with the more interesting face, as well as something else the camera finds more intriguing: That elusive “It” nobody can quite describe and yet is so obvious when you see them on film. So one is a film star and on the cover of Vogue, and the other is in a secondary role on show on Netflix, albeit a groundbreaking show directed by David Fincher, the man who made Rooney Mara a star.
Zoe is at least as cold and calculating as Claire Underwood is—at the risk of being tarred and feathered by strong women everywhere, in my opinion these are women with men’s souls, who will forego motherhood and a ‘normal’ life path for a female in exchange for power and a chance to play on the same field as the men—but Mara makes Zoe far more convincing and identifiable than Wright does Claire. Therefore, I am inclined to say that Willimon has made a minor, forgivable mistake that many male writers, including me, make when writing women: He’s put himself in drag rather than drawing on an outside reference and painting her into the scenario. But for me most of the blame goes to Wright; I love watching her and all of her awesome style touches, but she’s a wooden, self-conscious performer overall. And that singlehandedly stops House of Cards from being the best show around right now, as opposed to one of the top five or ten.
Yes, in many ways it’s better than the venerable Homeland, because House of Cards relies on few pyrotechnics and sits firmly within the realm of possibility, which Homeland has now relinquished for the sake of ratcheting the stakes ever higher and keeping the show ongoing. And, while the women on HOC are guilty of all the aforementioned sins of frigidness, at least they aren’t crying and melting down like Claire Dane’s Carrie in every darned episode.
Plus, there is Spacey front and center, and he just sucks focus like the funnel of a tornado, and is equally thrilling to watch. If the other characters are drooping in a scene (notably Robin Wright), he just picks them up and carries them through like a fireman rescuing stranded cats.
Also noteworthy is Corey Stoll, whose interpretation of Ernest Hemingway was the most enjoyable part of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Here again is an actor who should be a far bigger celebrity than he is—in certain instances he reminds me of a young Gene Hackman playing Hamlet—but I suspect something will come Stoll’s way that will kick him to where he deserves to be.
Apparently YouTube and other content platforms are getting into the production game, becoming entertainment companies themselves, as they must. Will it change the way we do business and what we create? Certainly, TV and the web—soon to be one—are upping the quality; creative decisions are no longer being dictated by often smug, hubristic execs who basically condescend to viewers by trying to pander to “the lowest common denominator.” And having more distribution channels fuels competition and engenders more opportunities for everyone in the entertainment business. But at the end of the day, the decisions will be made by more or less the same people as always, which is neither here nor there; for better or worse, people with experience know what they’re doing, and therefore should be doing it. Whether what they do is good or not is entirely subjective. But objectively speaking shows like House of Cards are just damned fine entertainment all around, and I would give an important part of my anatomy to create one.
What pleases me most as a writer about this chapter-versus-episode thing is that the rules of scripted episodic TV/webcast are being altered, however subtly. We are no longer obliged to end on a certain page with a hook to get people back after a commercial break, or to end an episode with something even grander to get them back the following week, or even worse after an entire holiday. On the other hand, we are going to have to match or surpass what Willimon and his team have pulled off laudably, which is to keep winding the tension steadily, without relying on dramatic payoffs and fireworks, until that tension is coiled so tight it cannot help but lash out like a bullwhip in the final chapter. That requires a Herculean amount of planning, focus, and narrative dexterity.
Daunting, to say the least.