Thursday, February 27, 2014

House of Cards

I finished season 2 of the Netflix series House of Cards last night and I feel confident in saying that it's one of the best shows on "TV". Where they go from here I can only imagine, and we'll have to wait another year or more before season 3 premieres, but House of Cards is undeniably going to go down as a landmark show in entertainment history, and a creative solidifier for Netflix as a rival to HBO as the go to place for adult TV.

Adapted from both the British novel and BBC series House of Cards, the US version is the first production from Netflix (the previously streamed show Lillyhammer was produced independently and only distributed by the company) and they got heavy hitters like David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, Oscar-winning writer Eric Roth behind the scenes, with Spacey taking on the lead role in front of the camera, and playwright and screenwriter Beau Willimon as show runner. Netflix's research showed that the previous format of "Appointment TV", wherein each episode of a show created talking points for people to gather around the water cooler to discuss while they waited for next week's episode, was not necessarily what people actually wanted. Viewing trends showed that people liked spending an entire weekend watching a season of Breaking Bad or Lost or even comedies like 30 Rock or How I Met Your Mother. Netflix decided their model would be to release an entire seasons worth of episodes on the same day. So on February 1st 2013, season 1 appeared to great acclaim and viewership. On February 14th 2014, season 2 "premiered" to the same. Research even showed that more than 600,000 people binge watched the entire second season over Valentine's Day weekend.

Spacey's role as Congressman Frank Underwood is the role of a lifetime for him. Underwood is pragmatic, cold, and calculating, but with a southern boy's charm and snake oil salesmanship. Spacey's tendency to seem arrogant or smug fits perfectly the role and he's better in it than he's been in anything before. As his equally (or maybe even more) cold wife Claire, Robin Wright has not a speck of Princess Buttercup in her anymore. Frank says in the first episode "I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood" and I think the choice of comparison is telling with these characters. He didn't say "more than kids love candy" or "plants love sunshine". Along the way of the two seasons we also get a cavalcade of great characters ranging from Kate Mara's nosy and ethically bendable reporter Zoe Barnes, to Corey Stoll's recovering alcoholic Congressman Peter Russo, lobbyist and former Frank Underwood employee Remy Danton played to perfection by Mahershala Ali, Michael Kelly as Underwood chief of staff Doug Stamper, and a wonderful Gerald McRaney as billionaire businessman Raymond Tusk, with whom Frank has a developingly antagonistic relationship (as tends to be a theme with Frank).

Every actor is terrific in their role, and the writing is wonderfully character based. Oftentimes, plots that would've been made into huge stories in other shows are glossed over here for how they affect relationships and the characters themselves. For example, in season 2 Molly Parker's Army veteran Congresswoman Jackie Sharp is being groomed by Frank to take over his spot as House Majority Whip after Frank got a new position at the end of S1. Frank is confident he can get her confirmed in congress, while she isn't as sure. Instead of a season long or even multi-episode long arc where we see them fight to get Jackie the position, the show simply cuts during an episode onto Capitol Hill where we see outside an office door "Office of House Majority Whip Jacqueline Sharp", because the show is more interested in what that title and power means to her in her life and in her relationship to Frank than it is in giving us a storyline of "will she be confirmed or won't she" and padding out the runtime or episode count of the season.
And that's how I think the show can survive beyond the two seasons that were initially planned (season 3 was recently confirmed, and then delayed while awaiting tax breaks from the state of Maryland) because it's not about the plot, it's about the people. Each character has their own motivations and quirks, which affects how they handle other characters and their motivations. The characters don't all talk the same, I found myself really enjoying the more flowery language given to Spacey, and the actors help them all feel like real people. It's a terrific show on every level, but I'd caution people that it may take two or three episodes to get hooked. They had the two seasons entirely mapped out and ordered from the studio, so they didn't have to worry about grabbing you in the first episode to make sure you come back next week. It was after the second episode for me that I found myself hooked. Now I'm kinda pissed I have to wait until next February or after (depending on how far back the production delay sets them) to see these people again.

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