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Slithery Spacey & Co. Rule the "House of Cards"

Hello, lovelies. Beau here, returning after a major binge of quality television during the past seventy-two hours.

Yes, I have finished the first season of the newest business model for the entertainment industry, the David Fincher / Beau Willimon project "House of Cards", with a large cast led by Kevin Spacey as Francis "Frank" Underwood, a ruthless ambitious politician in DC.

I'll be perfectly honest in admitting that the show didn't do much for me. Whereas Homeland, Downton Abbey, Girls and Archer have proven to be tried and true addictions House of Cards treads over familiar territory with little to supplement the politics.

Spacey is, naturally, exceptional, having a ball with the material and the ability to flaunt his ungodly talents. The asides to the audience turn us into co-conspirators, advisers to his machinal, instinctual desire for revenge. Robin Wright (long one of my favorite actresses, who hasn't been given a fine enough opportunity to strut her stuff since Nine Lives years ago) fares slightly less well, given that her promising Lady Macbeth front slowly withers but all the drama is internal.

[more after the jump]

There's so much happening with Claire that I never felt, desires deserted and buried under pride and promise of immeasurable power. But Wright finds the right longing note of a woman able and disenfranchised all at once. Her husband is morally bankrupt; he's using all her credit.  

I'm not sold on Kate Mara. Without being too unkind, she was the weakest link of American Horror Story: Murder House, and suffers the same fate here. In both instances, she takes on the part of a conniving mistress and the dangerous cocktail of naive nonchalance and interminable ambition proves a tough one to mix making the actress come across as too petulant, too removed or too earnest. (Rooney Mara, on the other hand, when partnering with Fincher has such a control of her own skin, a sense of herself in herself, that to see her range from rancor to resilience to rendition never seems anything less than organic. She's one of the best things about The Social Network, a film that has grown in esteem for me in the few years since its release, veering dangerously close to that 'M' word in my book. She makes sure you don't forget her.)

Rooney > Kate

There's a moment in "House of Cards" where Kate steps into a dress worn previously by Robin Wright's Claire. Not being versed at all in fashion save what I picked up from The Devil Wears Prada or the boutiques I passed on my way to work in South Coast Plaza, my mind immediately jumped to something out of US Weekly: Who Wore It Best? Mara looks uncomfortable in the dress, and she feels uncomfortable in the role. I'm not sure what to do with her.

Corey Stoll as well, disappoints. In his first major role since Midnight in Paris, he aquits himself well enough with the material but there's nothing more than serviceable to what he does with the role. I can't even muster up enough passion to discuss it further.

Interestingly enough, the most unique thing about "House of Cards" has nothing to do with its quality but the manner of its delivery. Binge viewing is becoming the norm with television shows but, like binge eating, there's only so much you can stomach. Eventually you have to take a pause, step outside, go for a walk. The best television shows elicit the same kind of reaction for me, as I mentioned earlier, as many vices do for others. Coffee, cigarettes, marijuana, cocaine, sex, etc. You crave it, you thrive when you have it, and you silently rock yourself back and forth in the fetal position on the floor when you're without. You feel a void in your life when a show goes off the air (as many did this week when 30 Rock took its final bow) or even when it takes a year off to vacay in Maui.

I won't be missing House of Cards.  Not my kind of drug

Michael Kelly - HOC's MVP.

And you?  

  • Did you also run the "House of Cards" marathon?
  • Did you get caught up in its web of political underminings? 
  • Do you think Binge Viewing is the way of the future? Or is there something to be said for the anticipation each week holds for the next step in the journey?

Tell us in the comments.

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Reader Comments (25)

Did you also run the "House of Cards" marathon? Yes, finished it on Sunday.

Did you get caught up in its web of political underminings? Yes.

As for the actors, I think they are all amazing. Robin Wright is my MVP, she's fantastic. Everyone is exceptional though (Stoll, Mara, Spacey).

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSquasher88

It's my third day of obsession with House of Cards. I loved it. Also I enjoyed the idea of whole season premiere the same day. I would not have to wait new episodes for weeks.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNika

I have to disagree - I am currently "binging" on House of Cards and I think it is exceptionally good entertainment. Intelligent television that should be put in the same high level category as some of what is playing on HBO and Showtime. I could discuss Robin Wright' and her character for hours, but for such a great actress she does the most with this limited supporting part (and I would argue her work in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee is her last "strutting"). Very much looking forward to Season 2 of this...

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJan

I turned it off after five minutes. The scene with the neighbor's dog did me in. No thanks.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBilly Held An Oscar

I think Robin Wright kicks ass in this role.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBia

Seems odd to me that you didn't find the show addicting, yet watched 13 hours in 3 days. Personally, I'm only halfway through (haven't really had time to fully binge) and it's one of the stronger first seasons I have seen in some time. Disagree especially on your acting assessments as I think Mara, Stoll, and Wright are all top notch.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAdam

I live in Baltimore where the series is filmed, and many of my friends have gotten featured extra work on the show. I actually met Kate Mara last summer as she was walking her dogs and cross paths with Michael Kelly while going past a Whole Foods Market. I have yet to watch the show, however.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

I'm always surprised and impressed by people who can binge an entire series in, you know, a day or two. I pretty much max out after two or three episodes in a row. I also don't often have time to sit through that much TV uninterrupted, so I'm also always a little jealous of some people's free time. :)

I watched the first five or so minutes of the first episode last week, just to get a taste. I'll watch more at some point, but I'm with Billy - the whole killing the dog scene felt like a miscalculated attempt to be edgy and stand out from the crowd, and personally it was a big turn off.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

The show is fantastic. Great writing and acting across the board. When you say that Kevin Spacey's character is "morally bankrupt", it makes me think you missed a lot about the show. Their characters, their intentions and their marriage are much more complicated than how you view it. Its a new kind of relationship we haven't seen in a tv show before and its refreshing.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGerold

Is the M word Meryl?

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

You didn't find this addicting but you think Downton Abbey is great? Eesh. No other show gets a bigger pass from critics than that one. Dreadfully soap operatic.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnton

@Anton: I said 'addicted'; I didn't specify whether or not I thought the show was exceptional or 'great'.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBeau

Finished the marathon in three days, and still would've sat for another couple episodes if they were available right away. In terms of social impact, this storytelling speaks volumes to our relationship to elected politics, particularly when thought of in comparison to the juggernaut that was "The West Wing," for instance. It's dark, sleek, risky -- love that we're jumping time, allowing stories to develop off-screen, smolder on-screen in one episode, and then explode in the next. It's compelling and exciting, but doesn't need to be either or both in every episode. But I think the series really hits its stride several episodes in when both Frank and Claire might lose control and so expertly regain it (at least in temperment).

As for the actors, I found the casting to be generally excellent. Aside from the top names, the show is packed with veteran NYC theater actors and it shows. Robin Wright's dangerous decision to carve Claire out of pure crystalline ice is a bold move, and it takes several episodes to involve us in her half of the story; it isn't until her own storyline takes off that the pay off reveals itself. Her showdowns with the reporter and the do-gooder are fucking brilliant, and only work because of the precise maintenance of her character throughout the rest of the series. Unlike you, I was totally riveted by Corey Stoll's work here; the questionable moral center of season 1, his character moves from pawn to king to something else, something more tragic entirely, and that is the heart of the season. Will be interesting to see where this tacks to in the next season. Spacey hits all cylinders of his persona in this character, and it really is gorgeous work; his duet with Wright feels so natural and cool. The omni-sexuality of their characters was one of the most surprising elements, revealed without shock value but out of true reality. Other stand-outs in casting for me included Rachel Brosnahan as the prostitute (didn't see her coming back, and WOW did she surprise in her brief appearances across the season), Sakina Jaffrey as Linda Vazquez (totally bought the Rahm Emmanuel character), and Constance Zimmer as Skorsky. Shout-outs to Jayne Atkinson as Catherine Durant and Kathleen Chalfant as the owner of the Trib for small but lived-in cameos.

Now to some reservations: David Fincher set the series with clear marks on its look and tone; it was visually too dark for computer screen-play in the first episodes -- it seemed to brighten up in the episodes to follow without compromising or totally shifting the initial vision, so I liked that a lot even though I started off wary.

There are a couple of crucial casting issues here. I agree that I am not sold on Kate Mara or her character. I can't frankly decide which is the bigger issue, because I do think there might be a lot to blame in the creator's conception of the reporter. Tack onto that a doe-eyed actress without the ability to play in the stitches of moral ambiguity, and you're left with a very confused characterization. I expect there will be some serious over-hauling of the reporter in season 2, which I think we can anticipate already in how quickly her character teamed up with the "other side" in the investigation at the end of the season.

Two of the big stand-out casting failures, for me, were that of the President and Vice President. Given their lack of attention in the pilot, I assumed that these figures would remain unseen during the series. When they became involved, all I could think of was how uncharismatic and unspecific these actors were in the roles. In a world of well-carved, high-octane individuals, how do these two become leaders of the free world? I just didn't buy it.

Loved the season, looking forward to the second.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

I agree that the show is not the greatest. I thought it went downhill fast after 2 episodes - it's filled with cliches and the story is not interesting. If it wins over Breaking Bad and Spacey gets Emmy over Cranston next year it will be the biggest travesty in TV awards ever.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered Commentersati

Am I the only one bothered that the two female reporters (Mara and Zimmer) both admit to sleeping with men to get their stories and that is just accepted as a reality? I actually think the female characters are well-written and well-acted yet the sexuality of a female in the profession of journalism is so cliched that it was disappointing. I guess the other option was have Zimmer wave her finger at Mara and tear her apart in a Sorkin-esque monologue on ethics but damn is the show accepting of the most common attributed sets of cynicism toward journalism and government. Even Armando Ianucci's shows (that as a former employee of the Hill, I can say Ianucci's characterization of working in government is one of the more accurate portrayals) had a cynic threshold. Beau Willimon, who is the show-runner of the series, supposedly worked on the Hill too but I feel like there was little shown beyond the atypical generalizations we have seen before on government. That's a little embarrassing when a Brit like Ianucci with Veep does a better job on showing the details and nuances of working in DC (and the fact we really did all cuss ever other sentence).

I actually think Corey Stoll is very good and it was really hard for him to give a better performance that what he was written as.

I binged watched it in 2 days and half-way through Day 2 I had buyer's remorse since I felt so in the dark of how everybody else's viewing experience was going and if anybody had gotten that far, etc. Internet gave TV viewing a communal experience that I really cannot see people easily dropping with this method of TV viewing by Netflix. That and the fact I had a real appetite for ribs my entire weekend watching it.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Anton, nothing wrong with a really good soap opera. It's food for the soul. Soap opera is an artform just like any other genre.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Haven't gotten to it yet but definitely on the docket. Kinda wish Netflix were doing this 1 episode per week. That way it stays a part of the cultural conversation for a while. But now it just seems like yesterday's news already. And by the time I get around to it (next week maybe?) it'll be a relic.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRobert A

I just watched the first five episodes and Robin Wright really kicks some ass & I'm so in love with Corey Stoll... both are AMAZING

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChecko

"sense of herself in herself, that to see her range from rancor to resilience to rendition never seems anything less than organic"
Yes, Rooney is a cool and self-possessed actress, but that is terrible phrasing. All those horrid r's.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRohit

I think the review is pretty spot on. Cards is a quality production but it's not up the standard of TV's best shows - Louie, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, etc.. It's more in line with something hit and miss like Boardwalk Empire. The most notable things about it are Spacey, the beautiful look and mood of the show and the new Netflix business model.

And Steve is 100% right about the president. In writing and performance a complete nothing character.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Really didn't catch on to it. Kind of dull.

One show that I don't get the hype for is Homeland. WTF. It starts out ok, but by the second season it goes beyond ridiculous. Why is it winning so many awards? It's melodramatic and the worse part of it is Clare Danes's character. The acting by Damian Lewis is stiff and caricature and Clare Danes is sooo over the top at times. I don't get the love for this show at all.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMeliisa

I watched and loved the original British series and thought the writing was very, very clever. Is this American series by the same writer or adapted from the original?


February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

I agree that it's not Mad Men/Breaking Bad quality, but it's entertaining. There were a number of issues I had with the writing and the plot (I agree about the reporters sleeping with sources, and the scene closing episode 7 was just awful, plus some of the nitty-gritty of politics just seemed fake - for instance, having a Democratic president agree to pass an education bill that included a provision that repealed all collective bargaining rights for teachers. That's a state issue, and it wouldn't fly among Democrats regardless).

I did think Corey Stoll was fantastic, though, and I actually thought his character was the most interesting (and possibly realistic) of the bunch. He reminded a bit of Patrick Kennedy or Jesse Jackson Jr., minus the legacy issues. I was sorry to see how his storyline ended, just for my own selfish purposes.

I agree that Netflix should release this an episode at a time. It would be interesting to read episode-by-episode takes on this series.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

He needs to win the TV drama Golden Globe and top Jodie's coming out speech with his own. It's time, Mr.!

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRyanSt

@Suzanne- The AV Club will be doing a week-to-week episode review and recap. Todd van der Werff is doing the reviews and is a pretty good one at that.

@Michael C.- Boardwalk is a great comparison and that show did not really come together until halfway toward Season 2. That and the prestige pedigree Boardwalk had with Terrence Winter running it, the great cast of the some of the best character actors in the business, and Martin Scorsese (and Mark Wahlberg for that matter) producing and directing the pilot.

@Meliisa- Agree about Homeland. It actually offended me reading the lazy comparisons between Danes' Carrie to Chastain's Maya in Zero Dark Thirty (or that there was whispers going around that both are based on the same woman which seems implausible given Homeland's production timeline). One is clinically insane and she falls apart over her terrorist/lover while the other is obsessed in a way that seems more organic and the symbolism grows from that than being splattered on the TV screen from the getgo. Mandy Patinkin is the only consistent presence to watch the show.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

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