Saturday, 2 February 2013

Netflix's HOUSE OF CARDS (2013)

written by Beau Willimon (based on the miniseries by Andrew Davies and the novel by Michael Dobbs) / directed by David Fincher

There's two conversations to be had about House of Cards: the content of the show itself, and the unusual way it's been distributed. We'll start with the actual drama, which is a 13-part political thriller based on Andrew Davies' 1990 British miniseries that starred Ian Richardson as a devious Conservative trying to become Prime Minister—which was itself adapted from a novel by Michael Dobbs. In the US remake, Kevin Spacey (something of an Anglophile) takes the lead as Francis Underwood, the House of Representative's Majority Whip, who is unhappy when his efforts to install the next President go unrewarded with the promise of being made Secretary of State. Consequently, the ruthless Democrat plots revenge against President Walker (Michael Gill), Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey) and the man who usurped him, Michael Kern—aided and abetted by his equally ambitious wife Claire (Robin Wright).

Despite being bankrolled by a company that make their money distributing other people's content, Netflix have sunk $100m into House of Cards and it's indistinguishable from prestigious dramas you'd expect from the likes of HBO. Anyone expecting a shoestring budget will be delighted by the production values, and it's clear that "Chapter One" benefits from having renowned director David Fincher behind the camera. He brings his gift for composition to the show and makes the camera-work look effortless, while imbuing it with an atmosphere and look comparable to The Social Network. I haven't seen beyond this episode at time of writing, but it'll be interesting to see if Fincher's standard-setting hour is maintained by some of the less feted directors involved—like James Foley (Glengarry Glenross) and Carl Franklin (Devil In A Blue Dress). I'm also looking forward to seeing if Joel Schumacher brings something different to the mix, or is happy to follow Fincher's example for the sake of continuity.

In terms of performances, you just can't grumble about Kevin Spacey in a role like this. He's a great actor, but really seems to come alive when he's in positions of authority (Swimming With Sharks, Margin Call). He also makes for a great villain, particularly if there are shades of grey involved, so Francis Underwood is arguably the best role he's had in quite some time. We're introduced to him strangling an injured dog to death in a street, but his rationale is strong and unwavering. He's not like most people, but it's clear he's perfect for the cut-throat world of politics, and should be immensely enjoyable to watch throughout this series.

Spacey's theatrical background also helps, as both version of this drama take inspiration from Shakespeare (particularly Richard III), and Underwood occasionally stops to break the fourth wall and address the audience watching at home. This is always a tricky device to pull off, but House of Cards treats it exactly right. It never feels off-putting to suddenly have Spacey talk to the camera; instead, it makes us feel involved in his thought processes. It also stirs a feeling that we're companions and confidants in Francis Underwood's machinations, which brings us closer to the character.

Overall, I found House of Cards utterly engrossing thanks to Spacey's brilliant performances and Fincher's slick direction. I wasn't completely sold on Beau Willimon's script at times, and it's still too early to feel an attachment to the story and non-Underwood characters, but this was a very strong start to a show Netflix should be deservedly proud of.

Oh, I almost forgot about the second conversation to have about House of Cards. In a unique decision, Netflix made all thirteen episodes available for streaming on 1 February around the world. There's no attempt to emulate the broadcast television model of one episode "premiering" every week, or a delay for international audiences, it's just all ready to be consumed as quickly or slowly as individuals want. You can watch the whole season in a half-day, a weekend, a week, a month, three months, or even a year if your life's that busy. It's up to you. Is that a wise move? I have my doubts.

As you'd perhaps expect from a TV blogger, I enjoy and savour the communal experience of this art form. I like to discuss episodes in the gaps between them, and believe the anticipation of the next episode is half the fun of long-form television. What you have here is basically a thirteen-hour movie, to be consumed in a variety of different ways. But when you're sat bloated after a weekend's marathon, did you truly enjoy House of Cards the same way? Is it fun to know you have to wait at least a year for more episodes, and that you can't discuss it with anyone without first vetting them about their viewing schedule?

I don't know. We're in uncharted territory here. I know some people genuinely love being able to watch something as and when they choose. I can see why, but it feels impatient to me, and I don't think stories benefit from being rushed. You'll get storytelling indigestion.

1 February 2013 / Netflix
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