By Sam Cenzhang, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 11, 2013
“House of Cards” has the sort of pedigree that puts the audience on notice. The show makes no pretense that it’s anything other than a star vehicle for two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey (“American Beauty”). When the credits roll, the cinematically shot and frenetically plotted “House of Cards” feels like something much bigger than television.
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Of course, “House of Cards” isn’t exactly television. Netflix is transforming from content platform to content producer, and its evolution doesn’t start small. For one, every episode of “House of Cards” is available, right now. It’s an obvious prestige project, starring an established movie star in Spacey, who’s sure to garner serious consideration for an Emmy. In today’s ludicrously crowded field of Best Leading Actor in a Drama candidates, that’s praise about as high as possible for the credibility Spacey brings to any project.
Spacey completely dominates the first two episodes by virtue of screen time — sheer presence and the particularities in the show’s storytelling. He commands the screen as Francis Underwood, House Majority Whip and Representative from Gaffney, S.C. Not only that, he also directly addresses the audience, which by itself is not at all innovative. Indeed, the show isn’t even the first whose title starts with “House of” to employ a protagonist-narrator played by an Academy Award nominee. (That dubious distinction belongs to Showtime’s disappointing “House of Lies” and Don Cheadle.) However, the device, as worn-out as it has seemingly become, suits “House of Cards” and its star perfectly.
The dialogue is overwrought, appropriately so for such a master of ham as Kevin Spacey. There are moments, though, when it threatens to veer from overliterate into unlistenable. The first two episodes are filled to bursting with exposition, plotlines and characters, all of which seem to demand a substantial amount of screen time. When the camera centers on Spacey, and the rest of the world drops away in the moments when Spacey breaks the fourth wall, the show and Spacey are given room to breathe. Lines that threaten to become corny are instead delivered lightly, with a wink, and we become complicit in the joke and are further drawn into Frank Underwood’s web. The arch glance to the camera trademarked by “The Office” ’s John Krasinski has never served a more crucial pacing and structural role.
David Fincher (“Zodiac”) was hired to be David Fincher, and these first two episodes are very David Fincher indeed. There are too many examples of directorial pyrotechnics to list, from shots outside the Rayburn building to a scene inside a dirty hovel. When it comes down to it, Fincher is one of the preeminent directors of his generation, and his directorial work here is exemplary. Unfortunately, his directorial involvement with the show ends with the second episode, so there is at least some concern that this may be the visual high point of the entire series’s run.
Fincher’s ascension to the ivory tower of executive production, however, won’t damage the show irrevocably. Any show would be better off with Fincher calling the shots, but the narrative momentum created by the first episodes isn’t merely a function of masterful direction. Despite the inevitable pacing hiccups created by an overload of storylines, Kate Mara (“Deadfall”), Robin Wright (“Enlightened”) and Kristen Connolly (“The Cabin in the Woods”) all deliver excellent undercard (as it were) performances, and they are the biggest draws outside of the event horizon that is Spacey’s presence.
Though Netflix provides a unique delivery system for the show, “House of Cards” by no means revolutionizes the form of serialized drama, even though there’s no weekly wait for the next fix. It hits all the notes one would expect from a season-long production, despite being made available like a 13-hour film. Every episode is comprised of small problems that are solved and fit into a larger tapestry, slowly unraveling over the course of a season. Anyone who has ever watched television will know exactly what this is like; “House of Cards” is essentially a glorified procedural. Despite that, the show is compulsively watchable, exquisitely shot and deftly balances restraint and melodrama. Reports of weekend binges through all 13 episodes are quite common, and that’s really all the endorsement you need.