There was much anticipation for “House of Cards,” a new original series from Netflix starring Kevin Spacey that arrived in one big helping – all 13 episodes of its first season – on the subscription streaming service last Friday for viewers to enjoy, at their leisure, in the weeks, months or even years to come.
Unless, that is, the viewer just couldn’t stop. Which was me. I proved incapable of saving some for later, devouring all 13 hour-long episodes over the weekend. Then I licked the bowl.
Now I’m gorged, and I’m left hanging for who-knows-how-long, deprived of answers to the questions with which the season jarringly concludes.
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But more to the point: I love the series. It hooked me. (Courting bedsores, I took root on the couch last Friday night and watched the first seven episodes in a row.)
“House of Cards” is a loose but respectful adaptation of the 1990s British political thriller of the same name, a TV masterpiece starring Ian Richardson as a conniving, manipulating Parliamentarian who rises to the level of prime minister before meeting his fate in the span of just 12 hours that aired over several years as a trilogy.
The new “House of Cards” is set in Washington, D.C., in the current day. It finds Spacey as U.S. Congressman Francis Underwood, a shrewd country boy from South Carolina who, early on, describes himself as “just a lowly House majority whip (whose) job is to clear the pipes and keep the sludge moving.”
His is a somewhat different self-appraisal than that of Richardson’s Francis Urquhart, the Conservative Chief Whip in the House of Commons, an avuncular aristocrat who wields a silver tongue, a twinkle in the eye and a bloodthirsty streak. With equally false modesty but far more polish, he describes himself as “merely a functionary. I keep the troops in line. I put a bit of stick about.”
Like the original, the new “Cards” has its particular Francis soon joining forces with a young, hungry and attractive journalist (Kate Mara) in a partnership of subterfuge and mutual convenience that quickly gets personal.
And he, too, has a strong and supportive helpmate, his wife Claire (played by Robin Wright) whom he loves “more than a shark loves blood.”
Once or twice, Underwood echoes Francis Urquhart’s coy non-quite-confirmation, “You might very well think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.” Then, thankfully, he lays it to rest.
While the original “House of Cards” is irresistible (and readily available right there on Netflix), this “Cards” is an original too. In contrast to the starchy, Thatcher-era government its forebear makes sport of, this “Cards” is waist-deep in today’s Beltway melt-down, where Congress is “choked by pettiness and lassitude,” as Underwood notes in one of his asides to the viewer.
Underwood (who, in contrast to the right-wing Urquhart, is some semblance of a liberal Democrat) has his eye on a loftier perch than the House, and there seems no limit to the cunning he can muster toward that goal. Confident but ever-mindful that things can always go awry, he relies on no grand plan but, instead, a thicket of potential counter strikes. His is a meticulously orchestrated power grab.
The result is a dark, hard-edged thriller whose soundtrack – far from the proud brassiness of the British “Cards” – is a thrumming, cautionary bass line.
The intense style of this “House of Cards” reflects the pair who developed it: Beau Willimon, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of another political drama, “The Ides of March,” and David Fincher, Oscar-nominated for directing “The Social Network,” a thriller in its own geeky right.
Spacey – once he and the audience get used to his Southern accent – is arresting. As a politician on the make, he is evocatively deadpan and sad-eyed, as if he wished this wretched world didn’t justify his deeds but will damn sure make the best of it.
It’s easy to sum up: “House of Cards” is an outstanding, even addictive enterprise.
And this brings us to the way Netflix is giving it to us. For virtually the first time in television history, a TV series isn’t a controlled substance.
Here’s a show that isn’t parceled out in carefully prescribed weekly doses! Such an innovation could have major implications, especially with Netflix’s all-you-can-eat price structure. (And, by the way, it could fail. At least one analyst has cast doubt on “House of Cards” as a magnet to expand the service’s subscription base: In theory, you could subscribe for one month, catch all the episodes plus any other goodies you want, then bail.)
In either case, “Cards” represents a brash response to the burgeoning new fad of linking TV viewership with social media in a shared “second-screen” experience, which largely depends on watching TV the old-fashioned way: in synch with everybody else when the network dictates.
One more thing: “House of Cards” poses a new challenge to the media critic.
I have regularly felt awkwardness at critiquing the premiere of a TV series without knowing what might lie ahead in future episodes. It’s like reviewing the early chapters of a novel I haven’t finishing reading and that maybe isn’t even written yet.
“House of Cards,” with 13 episodes available to me and every subscriber to the Netflix library (another 13 hours are completed but still under wraps), settles that issue. Now I know where the season is going and how well it gets there, and so can you, whenever you choose.
But what do I, as a spoiler-averse critic, feel comfortable disclosing, and when, with every viewer watching “Cards” at their own pace?
I can say this: The first episode doesn’t capture the power of the series, nor has Spacey yet hit his stride. But stick around and you’ll be treated to remarkable performances, a wickedly twisted plot, and unforgettable moments like what I’ll call the bathtub scene in episode 5, one of the greatest moments in film I can recall.
And until the final fadeout of episode 13, “House of Cards” keeps the pressure on. It’s a driving force. Not unlike Francis Underwood.
With Netflix my enabler, I was helpless to resist.
Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier