Review: “House of Cards” (Netflix)

UnknownNetwork television is famous for programming constructs appealing to the dumb and dumber. Irritating canned laugh tracks. Insipid plots guaranteed to offend no potential sponsors. Dumbed down dialog. Getting marginally better with Blacklist (NBC) and Blue Bloods (CBS) but the most talented writers and directors flock to more liberal cable channels in droves, closely followed by discerning viewers.

The “cable” experiment succeeded beyond the wildest expectations with amazing classics such as “Deadwood”, “Justified”, “Mad Men”, “Breaking Bad”, “Flashpoint”, “The Closer”, “The Wire”, The Shield”, “Hatfields & McCoys” and others. Well written, well performed, frequently with actors no one ever saw before.

Having tasted blood, Cable TV is maneuvering to lead a discriminating audience toward really good performance art. Recently: “A Killing”, “The Honorable Woman”, “Sons of Anarchy” and others. They are doing this by giving virtually total artistic freedom (and responsibility) to individual writers/directors who have no interest in beholding to sponsors or network suits. Nowhere was this more apparent than in “Deadwood”, arguably one of the most incredible series in the history of small screen film, lasting only there seasons.

Some of the names you’ll hear frequently are Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad” and Better Call Saul), David Milch (Deadwood), Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy), Graham Yost (Justified), Shawn Ryan (The Shield), David Simon (The Wire) and many more. So if you like good performance art on the small screen, sniff around and see what’s out there on cable.

Then as spin off from these creative series, streaming resource “Netflix”, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy at the time, took a staggering winner-takes-all risk by creating 13 episodes of a new series: “House of Cards” starring bankable actors Kevin Spacy and Robin Wright. “House of Cards” was an astonishing risk. Netflix literally pushed the few chips they had to the center of the table and bet the farm on a hastily accumulated political drama with no precedent. A new concept of viewing, the entire season out in one big chunk for series gluttons. They succeeded beyond their expectations.

In Seasons 1and II, Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) schemes his way through convoluted shenanigans as the (very) Southern Democratic Senate majority whip out to get revenge on a new administration that promised him a cabinet position, then reneges. His reptilian wife Claire (Robin Wright) aids and abets from a uniquely predatory, lupine female perspective. House of Cards portrays the protocol of political power differently than “The West Wing”. The Byzantine plots are a much more complex chess game in which progress is planned five moves ahead and the baroque parliamentary gerrymandering is fierce to the point of brutality.

Underwood and his wife share a spooky relationship in which much of their communication is unspoken, but between the two of them, they relentlessly decide the fates of others with Machiavellian cunning. Their interaction with victims is meticulously crafted to gently facilitate their self-destruction. Those investigative journalists ferreting out the couple’s guilt fall into artful traps that brutally assure their own destruction. The result is a masterpiece of intrigue with a minimum of suspense. The viewer always knows where the path leads, and the series takes its time getting there, wringing out the intricate details along the way.

Kevin Spacey pauses along the way to step out of character and wink at the camera, offering up snarky quips: “I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood”. However, in Season III, the dynamics of this relationship fall into a convoluted maelstrom leading to one of the most stunning cliffhangers in TV film.

“House of Cards is an unexpectedly brilliant masterpiece that probably single handedly pulled Netflix out of receivership. Spacey’s delivery of menacing charisma is the freshest character on TV. Wife Clare’s emotional link marinated with ruthlessness augment the series’ magnetism. The other characters are perfectly placed.

I give it 5 of 5 Frank Underwood sneers (yes….FIVE). Highly recommended on Netflix. As good as it gets.

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