F.U. in D.C.: House of Cards

ManArchy Magazine, Feb. 2, 2013


Sleep well, South Carolinians, while your fictional congressman strafes the enemy with machine-gun fire from the safety of his couch. In House of Cards, Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood (F.U.) blows off steam and insomnia via a first-person-shooter game controller. Really, he’s playing everyone on Capitol Hill, a wily puppetmaster tugging strings and forging realities with insulated deniability.

In this bizarro version of Congress, shit actually gets done. Which makes it a bit like HBO’s The Newsroom, without the liberal idealism. And it’s the antithesis of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Veep, in that these officials exert real power and influence policy. Underwood’s scheming is triggered by having been passed over for the promised Secretary of State position after helping get the new president elected. When courted by an ambitious newspaper reporter (Kate Mara), he leaks info to her that discredits his rivals and makes her career. Their rendezvous scenes have a cryptic noir quality that’s both familiar and thrilling.

Spacey’s steely wife (played with a masochistic bent by Robin Wright) challenges his resolve when not toning up her bony frame or gutting her charity’s staff. Their marriage is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the show. No clichéd cuckolding or trophies; they mirror one another respectfully, bound by their journey to prominence. I imagine their pillow talk as slowly detailing political body counts over a shared cigarette.

Like Don Cheadle in House of Lies, antihero Spacey breaks the fourth wall in mid-conversation, cluing us into maneuvers and machinations with his trademark deadpan in the same southern-fried drawl he selectively employs around his esteemed colleagues. We’re implicated, a confidant of sorts.

Three “chapters” into the series, I’d say it’s on par with the marquee shows on AMC or FX, if not quite as compelling as HBO dramas, though similarly budgeted (around $4 million per episode). Fans of director and executive producer David Fincher will recognize his fingerprints all over the visual style, with its lush sets and desaturated color palette reminiscent of of The Social Network and Zodiac. The series is based on novels by Michael Dobbs, the former press secretary for Margaret Thatcher, as well as the UK miniseries of the same title.

Most of the show’s press has centered around the novelty of its delivery format: streaming exclusively on Netflix, with all episodes available simultaneously. It’s ideal for viewers like me who prefer to shotgun their seasons over one unwashed, bleary-eyed weekend of pizza delivery and energy drinks, stopping just long enough to praise their new discovery online. I only recently heard about this series, so excited was I for Arrested Development, which is being offered the same way in March. They did invoke my ire, however, when I noticed fast-forwarding is disabled—this, after my internet connection crapped out halfway through an episode without getting bookmarked for resuming. On the bright side, that gave me time to share these first impressions with you instead of waiting to emerge from hibernation at season’s end tomorrow.