Political thriller becomes entangled in its own manipulative machinations

Sophie Byvik, Editor-in-Chief

Is it good? Yes. Could it be better? Probably. Does it really need to be? Probably not. Like its protagonist Frank Underwood, House of Cards, a first foray into Netflix-produced programming, is unashamedly itself. Its premise is fairly straightforward: House Majority Whip Frank Underwood (D-South Carolina) helps elect president Garrett Walker, in exchange for the promise of promotion to Secretary of State. When he is passed over after the election, vengeful machinations ensue.
Wife Claire (Robin Wright) backs Underwood (Kevin Spacey) through the conduit of her tightly-run clean water non-profit. The senator also executes his smarmily Southern puppeteering with personal Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) and Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a stereotypically spunky young reporter working for the fictional Washington Herald. Zoe just wants to get somewhere. Unfortunately, Underwood seems to be doing most of the thinking for Zoe, feeding her juicy advance scoops and scandalous editorials that hang on the skeleton in a Congressman’s closet. Finally, Underwood lures budding Pennsylvania Representative Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) into doing his bidding by lifting alcohol and prostitution charges against him; apparently booze, blunts, and babes are not unfamiliar to this Friendly American Congressman.
The hooplah surrounding the show occasionally distracts from the show itself. The entire first season of House of Cards was release at one time up front and available solely online, a practice that has been hailed as “the future of TV,” as Internet access and television streaming (via Netflix and…other providers) continues to expand. I like having shows online. I watch more TV programming on Netflix than movies, and it’s pleasant to be able to finish an entire series in bed, on my laptop, without having to wait week-by-week for the next episode. But I’m not sure if I started and finished HOC so quickly because I liked it, or because it was available and I just wanted it to be over.
Frankly, I decided to watch HOC because it stars Kevin Spacey. Creator David Fincher aptly hailed Spacey’s work on a recent production of Richard III as quality preparation forHOC; Underwood’s sheer, pleasantly distributed ruthlessness and sassy direct-to-camera asides echo Shakespeare’s villain. Spacey obviously relishes his role, which makes the rest of the show at least bearable.
I feel obligated to like this show, because of Kevin Spacey, because I should support Netflix’s gutsy venture, but…eh. HOC’s impossibly sleek, pristine production interferes with everything else. Even in supposedly gritty scenes, involving Peter Russo, cocaine, and an old hippie, the light falls just so on the dusty yellow couch in the run-down home. HOC looks as if the production team paged through Pottery Barn and the Washingtonian and rented photo spreads that don’t look real or lived-in, but eerily perfect. Shots of the Underwoods’ impeccable downtown townhouse make me want to throw duvets or spill lemon juice around the kitchen. These sets are just too clean. They’re disquieting.
I felt that same disquiet about the oddly trope-y characters, as though I’d seen versions of these people before. Ah, yes, the young politician struggling to recover from drug and alcohol addiction. The frighteningly cool-as-ice, uber-capable power wife, a frustratedly frumpy managing editor, and the jilted head of a teacher’s union populate a cast I’ve seen somewhere before. And this is the show’s tipping point to meh, for me, at least – none of the characters “clicked” for me. The character I wanted more of was essentially cast aside after the second episode: Catherine Durant, Underwood’s longtime friend whom he promotes to Secretary of State in his place. I’d much rather go globetrotting with Catherine Durant that schmooz-plotting with Frank Underwood.
There’s something about this show, like The Big Bang Theory, that unsettles me. Maybe it’s the tropes, maybe it’s the broad, sleek production, maybe it’s Underwood’s relentlessly precise machinations; whatever the cause, something is out of place. Plot and character and design slip into neat little boxes that portray Washington as the legendary stereotype of itself the parties, the politics, glossy modernity smashing into American Neoclassicism. I’m reminded of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette; fed up with the endless, farcical etiquette at the royal palace, Marie complains that “this is ridiculous.” Her companion the Comtess de Noailles simply replies, “This, Madame, is Versailles.”