House of Cards, the new political drama from the brilliant mind of David Fincher, launched on the first of february after an advertising spree that was almost as vicious as its lead character. In London, not a single tube billboard, bus stop or homeless person was not stamped with Kevin Spacey’s cold eyes and bloody hands. It was a ruthless strategy, and with a good reason: this is Netflix’s debut into the foray of self produced content, and is pushing for a whole new way of television consumption.
As the marketing can attest, they did not do things by halves: rather than eke out weeks of potential viewers ‘tuning in’, they’ve given the whole series up, 13 hour long episodes, in one healthy blow. Rather than choose smaller actors or C-List celebs purely to pull in viewers, they’ve gone all out with Spacey and Fincher. Rather than opting for a ‘safe’ program, like a predictable sitcom or reality TV show, they’ve gone for an 18-rated, highly intelligent, potentially controversial political drama that is almost entirely populated by self-motivated, power-hungry evil bastards.
And you know what the best thing is? They’ve pulled it off. Brilliantly.
Now, I’ve only watched the first few episodes so far, so this is very much a first impressions of the program. This is also quite rare for me, as having all of the programs at my very fingertips is paramount to some higher power saying ‘you know what Freddie? All that stuff you wanted to get done today? Don’t worry about it. Stay in bed, you’ve got 3 series of Breaking Bad to get through. Better get hungryhouse up too, because you’re not going anywhere.’ So my resistance so far has given me a real sense of pride (please, I’d love a pat on the back. I need the validation). More than anything though, it has allowed me to really chew over each episode. This is a program that values that too; it’s far from an easily digestible program, looking at the dark underbelly of American politics without pandering to its audience.
To sum up, Kevin Spacey plays Frank Underwood, a sinister Congressman in a sharp suit and a a southern drawl. A promise from the President that he helped to elect is reneged on, subsequently halting his progression up the political ladder. At this point, the rules are thrown out the window, and through manipulation and coercion he slowly goes out to ruin the careers of all that stand before him. He is joined along this road by his terrifying yet sexy wife Claire, a woman with eyes so cold that she makes Medusa look like Derek Zoolander.
Their relationship is a brilliant one, too. It’s frosty but loving, treating each other with such empowered respect. The scenes in which they sit at the window, late at night with a glass of red wine and sharing a cigarette as they discuss their plans of domination are some of my personal highlights. Frank, talking about his wife, says ‘I love her. I love her more than sharks love blood’ which couldn’t be more apt. They are sharks, toying with their respective prey.
They are joined by a whole menagerie of twisted individuals, from bitter bosses to corrupt politicians to sex-obsessed secretaries. They are all driven by personal gain, for power or for money. These are an entirely reprehensible bunch, but intoxicatingly so. The idea that characters like these are running the country with such dark and brazenly underhand tactics is not a new one, but still just as boldly explored here.
Kevin Spacey is of course the ringleader of these miscreants. His performance is devastating, at once both terrifyingly intelligent and gloriously manipulative. He constantly addresses the viewer directly, quite often mid-discussion or speech, and it gives a brilliant insight into his twisted genius. These Shakespearian asides makes Frank all the more captivating - his cold demeanour through his effortless destruction of his opponents would ordinarily alienate viewers, but instead these little glimpses into the real Frank, underneath the mask of politics that he so keenly survives, makes him all the more interesting and watchable.
This is as much a cinematic spectacle as it is a theatrical one though; David Fincher, famed director of The Social Network and Fight Club, has a foreboding aesthetic darkness to his films. This is not lost here. His scenes are constantly draped in suffocating black shadows, the very shadows that these figureheads of society all too often operate within.
Time will tell how this series stands up, as its bold new take on television distribution could just as swiftly be it’s own downfall. That said, a second series has already been commissioned, and here’s hoping that the series plays out with the dark fervour that has so far gripped the first few episodes. One thing is for sure: we’re not going to see the last of Kevin looming down at us from Abe’s chair as we shuffle along on our morning commute.