In a perfect world, every political drama is as good as the first few seasons of The West Wing. But alas, there can be no light without dark, especially when it comes to the politics genre of television.
House of Cards, the new Netflix-produced television show, has everything that should make it a sharp, intense and polished show of the recent era of television. Not to mention, Netflix just released all 13 episodes in bulk at the beginning of February, so it’s completely fresh.
Like any concerned college student, the fact that Netflix released House of Cards all at once made me worry mainly for my Twitter account. How else was I supposed to live-tweet my favorite shows if, in this new age, shows would no longer be aired on a tight schedule? Will the spoiler alerts ever end? What’s the grace period for this kind of thing? When can I start posting the spoiler GIFs?
Still, I understand the reasons behind this new format. The long-awaited fourth season of Arrested Development is scheduled to do the same thing as House of Cards in a few months, and anyone will be able to watch the show at their own pace as long as they have a Netflix account. Somewhere, somehow, there are people high up above on the food chain of television production weighing the costs and benefits of making a show and putting it up all at once.
This new format of television, at the very least, leaves consumers feeling fulfilled because House of Cards isn’t the only thing you can get on Netflix. If you don’t like it, you can always look for something else. For now, we still don’t know what will happen to the people who choose not to pay for shows or movies at all, but media providers like Netflix are hoping to attract precisely those people by providing more unique content.
Before I began to marathon all 13 episodes of House of Cards I only knew a few things about the show: It was about Kevin Spacey and politics, and David Fincher was involved. And I’ll admit it. I closed my eyes briefly and prayed that this was The West Wing equivalent that I had been waiting for. The variety of sophisticated shows that we have today certainly did not exist ten years ago, and House of Cards makes every effort to join that club – that club of Don Drapers and Walter Whites (but let it be known that alliterative names do not a complex character make, Hannah Horvath). And it gets pretty close.
Upon watching the first minute of the first episode, the show unquestionably got my attention. Kevin Spacey bursts open from double doors, transforming into Representative Francis Underwood, a power-hungry man with a cold stare and a southern lilt in his voice that makes me feel like I’m stuck inside some sort of Stephen King-Silence of the Lambs crossover. Not to mention that without warning in the first moments of the show, Underwood turns to the audience and smashes the fourth wall into pieces. At first, I don’t realize it, but surely enough, shit just got real. He’s talking to me. Whenever this happens in the show, it feels almost as if I’m a trusted confidante of Underwood. He takes the time to explain his tactics to me and reflect upon his own character. His lines are a little contrived and flowery, but I won’t hold back – it’s kind of like Lizzie McGuire’s cartoon on the seminal Disney show Lizzie McGuire, just a little more polished.
It takes me a little while to start gunning for these characters. Underwood’s wife, Claire, runs a water non-profit that I only start caring about halfway through the season. The dialogue is just a little too affected. “We’ll have a lot of nights like this. Making plans. Getting very little sleep,” says Underwood to his wife in the first episode. I rolled my eyes, but I remember kind of nodding in agreement because I was up marathoning House of Cards instead of doing my sociology reading.
Still, I know this is not The West Wing. I was almost tricked by the long tracking shots that House of Cards sometimes does, however. In the first few Fincher-directed episodes, I almost expected Rob Lowe to pop out – earnest, idealist characterization in hand as the staccato instrumentals play eerily in the background. But it is only the hoodie-wearing Zoe Barnes, the young, corrupt journalist who very hopefully did not get her degree from Medill.
House of Cards is a good show. It has everything it needs to be a great show. By all means, it should be an excellent show. The ingredients are all there: The shifting politics of Game of Thrones, the slick cinematography of an Oscar-baiting movie, the villainous protagonist of The Sopranos. It even does that cute thing where they get real news anchors to star in the little news clips pretty well.
It needs that final push, though. Underwood is almost omniscient with the power that he wields, but he’s not nearly as compelling as he could be. He’s ruthless, but almost with no reason to be. More character development is in order because we don’t know nearly enough about Underwood’s past.
As for the rest of it, the acting is satisfyingly good and the pace will surely keep you glued to your laptop screen. Perhaps House of Cards will develop its characters a little more in the second season, but in the meantime, you can always take a weekend and get to know your Netflix account better and venture a little bit more into the evolving world of digital-age television.