6 Reasons To Watch House Of Cards

Houes of Cards6 6 Reasons To Watch House Of Cards

After being speculated about for what felt like years, Netflix finally released its first original series, House of Cards, last week. It’s garnering tons of attention for a number of reasons. Perhaps the standout reason for its publicity is that it marks Netflix’s first foray into the realm of original programming, a big deal for a site that formerly dealt exclusively in streaming other movies and TV shows.

In a way, it follows the same model as HBO, which began as a channel designed to play movies, as indicated by the name Home Box Office. It was later that it became the beacon of high quality original programming that other channels have only recently begun to emulate. Netflix now looks to follow a similar path, and many are looking to House of Cards as well as the return of Arrested Development as indicators of the level of quality television that Netflix will contribute to the current golden era of TV shows.

The other big reason, for many it’s probably bigger than the Netflix angle, is that it represents a move into television by two huge movie commodities, Kevin Spacey and David Fincher. Spacey brings with him a presence that has made him a massive star on stage and in movies like American Beauty, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Usual Suspects, and of course Seven, a previous collaboration with Fincher. As for Fincher himself, he has developed a credibility few directors are able to earn, beginning with the hits of the aforementioned Seven followed by Fight Club, but is now finally receiving the level of respect he deserves following the brilliant The Social Network and the adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Two powerhouses combining their efforts to delve into the booming television market is worth the heightened interest.

The main question about the show though is: is it actually good? After all the publicity and the speculation and waiting for the big things this show was supposed to do, does it deliver? The dominating opinion seems to be yes; it hasn’t revolutionized TV storytelling necessarily yet, but it immediately deserves to be mentioned as the best new show out right now certainly, and likely merits mentioning alongside the finest shows running at the moment. I’m not even through the season, having a couple episodes to go, but for anyone still on the fence about whether the show is worth their time, I’ve got 6 reasons to plunge down the House of Cards rabbit hole.

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1: The Netflix model is awesome

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I know that most people these days get their shows online, or watch recorded on their PVR, or get the box set, but it’s still the overwhelming standard of release for television shows to air once a week over the course of a season before being made available by other means. This means if you’re wanting to watch a show in its current run, seeing each episode as early as possible, you’re going to have a week’s break between each one you watch. There’s all sorts of effects this has. For those of us who keep up with shows and enjoy the discussion around episodes from week to week, it gives us 7 days at a time to consider the previous episode that we and everyone we know watched the other night.

It has philosophical implications too. When a show is ongoing on a weekly basis, it feels like it’s developing in the present. When watching something like The Wire today, it all feels like it took place in the past, because we know it has ended. With Netflix releasing the entire 13-episode inaugural season of House of Cards on February 1st, there is no mode through which to experience this presence, the kind of development other shows have. It’s all there, over and done with, to watch at your own pace, but your pace had better be relatively quick because everyone’s talking about the season in its entirety as soon as they finish. There’s no analysis of each episode on its own. You consider the season as a whole, with each episode playing like a chapter of a movie or other story (each episode is literally referred to by “chapter” in its title). This is really different, and makes for a completely new experience of long-form storytelling. Fortunately the show keeps your interest and makes you want to get through the entire season, but the model Netflix is implementing, which it’s also apparently going to do with Arrested Development in May, is fascinating.

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2: The leads and supporting performances are great

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The casting in this show is phenomenal. The lead role of Francis Underwood played by Kevin Spacey is obviously excellent, as anyone would expect of an actor with a track record like Spacey’s. The supporting cast is all equally strong though. Kate Mara as the journalist Zoe is outstanding, making the character someone you, like everyone in her life, underestimate, but then surprises you with some really big moments. Corey Stoll, who I only really know as Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris but has built a pretty impressive résumé on stage and screen, is absolutely terrific as Congressman Pete Russo, possibly my favorite performance.

Another fabulous actor who has only really done small character work previously is Michael Kelly, playing a behind the scenes staffer to Underwood which aligns nicely with the actor’s actual professional career. And then there’s Robin Wright as Claire Underwood, wife of Francis, disappearing into the role as she’s been doing rather often lately. It’s an ensemble that lives up to the somewhat demanding but meaty material of the show, able to keep you on your toes and bring this Washington setting to life, even if it’s not meant to be entirely realistic.

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3: The Frank-Claire relationship is pretty cool

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One of my favorite elements of the show, of which there are actually many the more I think about it, is the relationship between Frank and Claire Underwood, power couple extraordinaire. There have been a lot of really poorly handled political marriages in the world of TV and movie dramas, where the wife is either completely ignored and serves essentially as stage decoration, or else she’s a plotting Lady Macbeth type, controlling her husband’s every move and causing his eventual demise.

The relationship in this case is one that seems fairly complex, built partly upon sincere love and affection, but also mutual ambition and career advancement, almost like a business arrangement where both parties are able to assist one another in various circumstances. There’s also a tension between what the agreed upon arrangement is meant to be, which seems to entail forgiveness of certain transgressions so long as they’re carried out for the advancement of their political goals, and then the real feelings they seem to have for one another, ranging from admiration to resentment. There are hints of true kindness and outright sabotage at play.

It’s tough for us to put our finger on what the nature of the relationship is because it’s not clear the two of them know, or are honest about it. Seeing a political relationship handled in this way is fascinating not because it’s necessarily a realistic portrayal of what these types of marriages are actually like but a reflection of some sort of truth about what they can be boiled down to on a fundamental level.

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4: It takes some big formal risks

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There are some other pretty risky things the show does, in addition to the chance it took going with the Netflix model, and with establishing its primary relationship on completely ambiguous terms. The main one that people seem to be talking about is Kevin Spacey’s narration, in which he talks directly to the camera in the middle of a scene, or on occasion, simply offers a knowing glance to the audience. This breaking of the fourth wall tends to be characterized as a kind of cliché, or lazy writing, or trying to be edgy or something. And it’s not uncommon for these criticisms to be fair and true, but I think House of Cards pulls it off in an interesting and compelling way.

For one thing, it allows us to see every situation from Francis’ perspective, which is intentionally limiting, and part of the point of the show. It’s exaggerated reality, I can’t stress that enough, and this is because it’s a drama carried out through the prism of his perception. He’s the hero of this drama he cast himself in, and we’re the audience he’s appealing to see it from his point of view. Where it really gets interesting is when we start to see the cracks in his narrative perspective, when he’s wrong about things, when he talks to us about an event we witness and his view of it specifically does not align with what we saw with our own eyes. A narrator that we don’t find as necessarily reliable in all cases is maybe the most interesting style of narration there can be.

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5: It has David Fincher’s fingerprints all over it

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Fincher’s recent work has really shown improvements on his visual storytelling ability. Part of this is his savvy employment of skilled cinematographers. House of Cards is probably one of the best-looking television series I’ve seen, and considering the latest raising of the visual bar by shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, that’s saying quite a lot. It’s not just the awesome shots of cloud-covered Washington, DC in the opening credits, or the gorgeously framed university campus buildings and other monuments, but just the general visual aesthetic tone to the show creates a distinct, almost surrealistic atmosphere, so we know it’s supposed to be more dramatic than realistic, more mysterious than revealing.

Another hallmark of recent Fincher is the use of pounding, bass-filled music, creating a rhythm by which we follow all the events, and can temper our intrigue based on the dramatic tone set by the score. It’s probably reminiscent to many viewers of an Aaron Sorkin-style show, in the tempo of the dialogue and action. There are shades of The Social Network all over the place.

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6: It’s a little like The Newsroom but so much better

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It’s not just the dialogue that reminds us of Aaron Sorkin but also some of the content. Many are comparing this show to HBO’s The Newsroom, probably because of the focus on DC newsrooms covering the exploits of Congressman Underwood and his colleagues in Washington. In my opinion though, which is supported by the majority of people who’ve watched it I think, is that House of Cards is way, way better than The Newsroom. I think they’re comparable in that they’re based somewhat on fantasy elements of how politics and journalism operate, but I would contend that House of Cards exaggerates truth and The Newsroom exaggerates falsehoods. The former takes fictitious events and dramatizes them to demonstrate a kind of immoral conniving pulse that drives politics, while the latter takes actual events and surmises that if only there was a great man to take a stand against the fools that determine the outcomes of such matters we’d be so much more virtuous as a society. There isn’t a trace of self-righteousness in House of Cards, from what I can detect, whereas The Newsroom thrives on it.

This exaggerated realism is understandably irritating to some viewers. Suspension of disbelief in farfetched plots and characters can only go so far. Having Kevin Spacey speaking to us is going to be intolerable to a lot of people who just find it aesthetically and narratively unpalatable. I have no qualms with that. I only wish that people will give it a chance to express some of the ideas and drama that it uses this exaggerated language to express. There may not be many, if any, politicians quite like Frank Underwood, but there is an element of Frank Underwood to all of politics. He’s more of a symbol than a character. I think if we watch the show this way, we get more out of it. It’s well worth the investment of binge-watching or reasonably paced watching people have been putting into it. It’ll be interesting to see how many other shows follow suit.

Have you watched House of Cards? What are your thoughts on the show? Share them in the comments section below.

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  • Efe Dada

    I think it’s a brilliant show with a very powerful protagonist. And just as you mentioned, even the secondary characters stand out due to the actors/actresses portraying them.

    I’m one of the few people who enjoy watching The Newsroom, but that’s only because I see it as what it is…fiction. I agree that it does have that element of self-righteousness. And it tends to want to give its viewers lessons on being virtuous and what we should do to make the country better. A couple of people might find that pretentious, but it’s still entertaining.

    I’m very much intrigued by Frank and Claire’s relationship, too. It’s…different and slightly unconventional. They seem to have a set of rules they follow, and I’m not sure if it’s working for them or not. But it’s delightful to watch.