I’ve just been assigned to binge-watch and blog about House of Cards for my media class. I know a few things about the context of this series, but nothing at all about the show itself. What do I mean?
What I know is . . .
1) It’s a Netflix original series. Developed and made by Netflix, released on the site all at once, not as a week-by-week thing. Presumably if it’s successful enough, it may start a new trend. Only time will tell.
2) It has Kevin Spacey, who I like very much, despite not having seen most of his movies. The ones I have seen, I’ve liked him in a lot, so his name is pretty big draw for me.
. . . and that’s it. I don’t know the plot or the premise or any of the character names or professions or ANYTHING. I have not looked at the posters (note from the future: I only googled that picture above when I’d finished writing up this post), and deliberately not read any descriptions, even the little summaries on Netflix. From the title, I presume there will be lies and deceit, but I don’t know what they’ll be lying about or who “they” are. A grand mystery, y’all.
I’ve got permission to blog these in 2-episode chunks, so I sat down with Netflix, my older brother, plus some sushi, and we let it roll.
Newsroom and Aaron Sorkin, pay attention. This is how you make a show with unlikable characters. You have them be completely, unapologetically evil with no illusions about who they are or what they want. It stops them from being preachy and insufferable, and causes viewers to see brief moments of compassion as cracks in the armor, leaving them to wonder if the characters’ consciences will ever catch up to them, or if they will get away with all their nefarious shenanigans without having to face any consequences or remorse. THAT is so much more compelling than watching people who claim moral superiority and then week after week fail to achieve it.
— It’s a political show, set in Congress in Washington DC.
— It’s the anti-West Wing. Instead of a bunch of brilliant, charismatic idealists struggling against the machine to make things better, it’s about a brilliant, charismatic megalomaniac who embraces the machine and uses it to satisfy his own thirst for power.
— Kevin Spacey plays said megalomaniac, Frank Underwood, a bigwig senator with a lot of political clout, who craves more power and disdains all the little people (aka other congresspeople) around him, seeing them only as pawns he must manipulate to serve his purposes. When the newly-elected president goes back on his word and does not appoint Frank to be Secretary of State, Frank throws all allegiances to the dogs and decides to achieve power however he can, backstabbing and manipulating whoever is in his way.
— His wife is played by Robin Wright, and she is a regular stone-cold Lady Macbeth. They deserve each other and get along quite well. She runs a charity called Clean Water Initiative and has no qualms about firing half the staff and her partner when she decides to take the organization in “a different direction.” Not sure what that direction is or why she’s doing it, but it can’t be good.
— Kate Mara, who I’ve liked from 24 and Jack and Bobby (hmm, I guess she likes those politically-fraught shows about fictional presidencies), is a blogger/reporter struggling to be taken seriously, and she finagles her way into getting Frank to be her top secret inside source. This is a mutually beneficial relationship, as he gets to leak information to the press in order to sabotage the presidency and other congresspeople, including the president’s new choice for Secretary of State (who is dismissed and Frank’s handpicked choice gets the job instead), and the reporter gets credibility and publicity.
— There’s Pete, the congressman who exemplifies all the worst sordid stereotypes about corrupt politicians: he drinks, smokes pot, snorts cocaine, hires hookers, sleeps with his secretaries, cheats on his girlfriend — you name it, he does it. But all this blackmail material puts him entirely at Frank’s mercy, and he becomes essentially Frank’s lackey, called in to do his dirty work.
I can’t say I like any of these characters as people. But they are a fascinating portrait of evil and vice and weakness, and they make you wonder how empty they can truly be, how far their deceptions and machinations can go, or if they’ve bitten off more than they can chew and it’s only a matter of time before their schemes really will collapse like the titular house of cards.