Contains spoilers -- do not read unless you've seen House Of Cards Season 1, Episode 1
Breaking down the fabled "fourth wall" (that sacred division between watcher and performer) certainly is risky business. So is making all 13 episodes of a new TV series available to the public at one time.
In Netflix's new streaming series House Of Cards, Kevin Spacey is Francis Underwood, the Majority Whip in the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., eager and willing to do anything, anything, to become the next President of the United States. When we're first introduced to Underwood, he talks directly to us, feeding us his motives and intentions along with a cheeky raise of his eyebrow. It's unusual on TV (save for the occasional "look" at the camera) to have a character speak to us directly; on this show, hand-in-hand with Netflix's lay-it-all-out-there approach to House Of Cards' launch, it's ingenious to have us right in the middle of it, knee-deep in the political muck along with Underwood. Politics are one thing from far away looking in, but quite another up close.
And my, my, aren't they murky from the inside. The wheeling, the lies, the manipulation, the measuring of a person by who they know and what they can offer instead of merit and constitution. You can be an absolute piece of shit and still rocket to the top (in some cases, you have to be), and those with any sort of nobility are quashed. Word means nothing. You can trust no one. Through Underwood, we can see that it's literally one man against everyone else. In politics, all others are your enemies, and you too must become an enemy to them if you want to rise in the ranks.
Directed by David Fincher (Se7en, The Social Network, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), at times House Of Cards feels like a movie instead of a TV show. With sweeping camera shots and clever angles, the show paints D.C. in a beautiful light despite the ugliness running rampant in its hallowed halls.
At the beginning of the episode, we're introduced to a very smug and certain Underwood, who's convinced himself that because he's played the game so well he'll succeed with ease, all the way to the Top Job. He's been "promised" to, and he believes it. When he's told that someone else has been chosen to move up instead of him (Spacey's fallen face here is priceless), Underwood decides to take out each and every person in his way. Surreptitiously, of course.
Along for the ride is his wife, Claire (played to perfection by the steel-jawed Robin Wright), who fills the "political wife" role adeptly: she knows enough to help Underwood out in the rough spots, and to keep her distance when necessary. She reminded me of a stalking cat whenever she was on-screen -- ruthless, with a knowing glare and a silent certainty that she's going to snag her prey. Claire knows where Underwood is at all times, and even appears out of nowhere to ash his half-smoked cigarette. At times I wondered if she was running the show, even though she's separate from the political world, at least on the surface. As head of a D.C. non-profit organization, Claire is just as icy and relentless as her husband, and in this premiere we see her coldly firing long-time staff in order to preserve financial balance. Whatever it takes, right? (As the series progresses I guess we'll find out who's really running things in this power couple.)
The other half of the episode is dedicated to a far weaker segment, focusing on the inner workings of a D.C. newspaper (The Wire, this is not). At the heart of it all is aspiring political journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), who wants to break free of the piddly assignments and do something BIG. Bordering on cliché and playing out a part we've seen a million times over, Barnes is the art-student foil to Underwood's cutthroat politico. Through a few encounters (including one involving Barnes showing her cleavage to Underwood to gain leverage and information), Barnes and Underwood agree to work together to each move up in their respective spheres. Both are driven to success, no matter what the cost, and minus the whole "cleavage" thing their banter is actually pretty entertaining.
(Aside: This, along with The Newsroom, shows how completely inaccurate the outside world-view is of modern journalism. No female colleague of mine -- yes, even those based in political centres -- has ever resorted to such ridiculous measures to get a scoop. For once it would be nice to see a TV female journalist not be portrayed as crazed, sex-and-relationship-obsessed or reliant on looks to do her job. Just sayin'.)
The episode ends with Underwood and Barnes' pact working. Barnes gets the exposé, and Underwood gets the satisfaction of bringing down the man who usurped his position. As Underwood so eloquently states: "Power is a lot like real estate. It's all about location, location, location. The closer you are to the source, the higher your property value."
Seems like these two are OK for now, but over 12 more episodes, this precarious victory will probably be shadowed by many, many losses.
You can stream House Of Cards at any time on Netflix.
My colleague Maureen Ryan recently interviewed executive producer and showrunner Beau Willimon.