I WAS predisposed to like House of Cards. Perhaps I could have pre-empted it with the smug opinion that nothing could compare with the 1990 British series and Ian Richardson’s malevolent performance. But I love political thrillers. And I like David Fincher’s films, even if their frigidity and cynicism needs to be countered by a screening of a Doris Day movie.
House of Cards is the US adaptation of the British series about a conniving politician whose ambition for leadership is thwarted, sending him into attack mode. The US adaptation was anticipated because of the involvement of Fincher, director of Seven and The Social Network, and Kevin Spacey, who plays an American version of Francis Urquhart, in this incarnation a slick Democratic house majority whip, Francis Underwood.
But much of the interest also concerned where it played, not who it came from. House of Cards premiered on US subscription TV service Netflix and all 13 episodes were available for download immediately. The hullabaloo sheltered the series from much criticism; its flaws were ignored in the rush to announce ‘‘Golly gosh! They’ve spent $100 million on a series that isn’t being broadcast on television!’’
And, truth be told, Fincher was the ‘‘set-up director’’ of the first two episodes before James Foley ( Glengarry Glen Ross) and others took over. That’s not to say House of Cards is bad. Indeed, it’s rather good and will become the first non-broadcast program to earn Emmy nominations, if not awards.
The medium actually suited the chilling series. House of Cards (MA15+, UniversalSony, 656min, $39.99) mark II is adult fare unsuited to any of the free broadcast networks and perhaps is one of those series that is better watched in binge batches. Given its lack of heart, would it have sustained an audience that had to wait a week for each episode? Besides, it is Shakespearean in its plotting and risque and protracted in its dialogue and, occasionally, a little unbelievable. The series waxes and wanes, albeit not as frustratingly as Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. The theatrical tone takes a couple of episodes to counter and we have seen Spacey play a shark many times before. Ultimately it is involving enough, though, revelling in Fincher’s portrayal of a brutal Washington and lead performances by Spacey, Robin Wright as his wife, Claire, and Kate Mara as the blogger Zoe Barnes that really pop.
Like much of Fincher’s work though, no matter how smart it looks and feels, House of Cards is soulless, just like its protagonists. That’s no bad thing though. It only confirms what we fear about politicians and in a year in which political junkies have been well served by a much improved second series of Veep and the sublime Danish drama Borgen, I’ll take it happily.