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What Worked & What Didn't In Season One Of David Fincher & Kevin Spacey's 'House Of Cards'

by Oliver Lyttelton
February 11, 2013 1:57 PM
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Ten days ago, Beau WillimonDavid Fincher, Kevin Spacey and Netflix hoped to change the future of television with "House of Cards," the first high-profile series to be produced by, and air exclusively on, the streaming platform. A remake of the late 1980s BBC miniseries (itself based on the book by Michael Dobbs), the 13-part first season of "House Of Cards" was adapted by "The Ides of March" co-writer Beau Willimon who developed the series for Netflix. Executive-produced by Fincher, who also directed the first two episodes, with Spacey leading a cast that also includes Robin Wright, Corey Stoll, Kate Mara and many more.

What's it about? Deceit, betrayals, duplicity, and political manuevering on Capitol Hill, centering on a ruthless congressman -- Democrat and U.S. Representative Francis J. Underwood (Kevin Spacey) -- who will stop at almost nothing to secure the top job in Washington, D.C.

We've already reviewed the first two episodes, but now a decent enough amount of time has lapsed for us, and hopefully some of you, to get beyond the opening and actually finish the series (and data indicates that a surprising chunk of viewers binged the whole thing in a day or two). So, as such, we wanted to dig in and talk, with some spoilers (clearly labeled for those who haven't yet finished the show), about what works, and what doesn't in "House Of Cards." After we've said our piece, and you can do the same in the comments section. Bring on season two.

What Worked

Kevin Spacey's best performance in years
When was the last time we really saw Kevin Spacey engaged on screen? There's been a few nice smaller performances in things like "Telstar" and "Margin Call," but for the most part, the actor's career over the last decade or so, since winning his Oscar for "American Beauty," has been made up of either vanity projects like "Beyond the Sea" and "Pay It Forward," or paychecks like "Fred Claus" and "Horrible Bosses," while he focuses his attentions on the Old Vic Theatre in London. So it's immensely refreshing to see him really back on form as Frank Underwood in the series. It owes a lot to his theatrical performance as "Richard III" (directed by Sam Mendes), that this villainous, Machiavellian figure isn't just outright scenery-chewing evil; the extended runtime gives Spacey the room to add nuance and pathos (most notably in the eighth episode, which sees Underwood honored at his military alma mater, and proves one of the highlights of the show). It's almost impossible to imagine anyone else play the role, and we can't wait to see more of him in the second season.

The marriage between Spacey and Robin Wright's character
One of the best elements of Spacey's performance, and indeed one of the best elements of the show altogether, comes in the marriage between his Frank Underwood character and his wife Claire (played by Robin Wright). The latter's equivalent in the original BBC miniseries is virtually a non-factor, but again, the extra running time means she can be fleshed out nicely. Some of this works, some doesn't (see below), but her scenes really sing when she's got Spacey to play off. Both parties have affairs in the course of the first season, and there's an intimation that this isn't the first time either have strayed, and yet their partnership isn't just one of convenience and ambition -- there's real love there, a complicated, warts-and-all acceptance of each other as a person, and they're equally devoted to Underwood's career rise. Many have namechecked Lady Macbeth in terms of Wright's character, but the actress (who between this and "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" should work with Fincher wherever possible) gives many extra layers to Claire. And the scenes when the two turn against each other, even if it's only for a short time, have real sting. Despite the terrible actions of both of them, you feel curiously affectionate towards both of them and their union by the end.

The supporting cast, especially Corey Stoll and Kate Mara
Of course, it's far from just a two-hander, and there's hardly a bad performance to be found in the show, and several truly exceptional ones, with a number of fine, undervalued character actors getting a chance to shine. We wish Michael Kelly ("Chronicle") had more to do as Frank's chief of staff, but he's fantastically good when he does. 'Benjamin Button' vet Mahershala Ali gets one of the more interesting roles as protege-turned-lobbyist Remy, and Kristen Connolly shows that "Cabin in the Woods" was only the start of her talents as Christina, the staffer/lover of Peter Russo (Stoll -- more on him in a second). But best of all are probably the two most significant roles next to Spacey and Wright. Kate Mara might not be as well-known as her younger sister Rooney, but David Fincher's clearly on to something with the family, as the undervalued actress is terrific as the ambitious, increasingly ruthless reporter Zoe Barnes. While the character goes to some disappointing places near the end (again, see below), Mara doesn't strike a bum note at any point. And for every moment of steely ambition, there's one of vulnerability, even if she's admirably vanity-free throughout -- there's no desire on her part to make Zoe likable, which is brave and absolutely correct. But the performance to treasure most of all is Corey Stoll as Congressman Peter Russo. Stoll broke through a couple of years back as Ernest Hemingway in "Midnight in Paris," but gets his best-ever showcase here. Russo is the best-drawn, most interesting character in the show, and Stoll excels at every moment of his arc, from boozy, philandering disaster, to good man trying to stay on the straight and narrow and do the right thing.

Pretty consistent, both stylistically and thematically
While David Fincher was the big name attached creatively, the acclaimed filmmaker only directed the first two episodes, with a fairly motley mix of TV veterans and feature directors taking on the rest of the series. One of the most impressive things about the show is how consistent it feels, long after Fincher's work is done. The directors, who include James Foley ("Glengarry Glen Ross"), Carl Franklin ("Devil In A Blue Dress") and even the much-derided Joel Schumacher ("Batman And Robin"), do an excellent job at capturing Fincher's style and aesthetic, thanks in part to sterling cinematography work by EIgil Bryld ("In Bruges," "Not Fade Away") and, for two episodes, "Girls" lenser Tim Ives, plus a top-notch score by Jeff Beal. But it's not just visually consistent: the show never really has a duff episode (though it also doesn't always have stellar ones either), a testament to the work of Beau Willimon and his writing staff. Without it ever becoming one-note, the theme of the lengths we'll go to, and the price we pay for gaining power resonates through every episode -- and indeed, virtually every scene -- giving it a focus that not every TV series manages.

An authentic setting
The obvious comparison point (along with the more recent primetime soap "Scandal") to the show for many has been "The West Wing," the last big TV hit to learn how the sausages are made, politically speaking. It is like that show's evil cousin, in some ways, but Aaron Sorkin's effort was always unapologetically a fantasy, a dream version of how Washington works, and one that rarely set foot outside the White House, presumably thanks to network TV budget limitations. There's some familiar settings revisited here, but "House of Cards" feels like a more authentic look at Washington, and at the career politician. The congressmen's need to continually campaign, to satisfy party bosses, lobbyists and constituents at home, all are nicely shown, whether through Underwood or Russo. And it also gets into the rotten, beating heart of D.C. in a way that few cinematic depictions of the state have managed. Willimon's time as a campaign aide to the likes of Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean is very much evident both in "The Ides of March" and "House Of Cards," and this authentic insight serves him well.

It manages to stay on the right side of being soapy, for the most part.
You could be forgiven, from that opening scene of Spacey killing a run-over dog while delivering a monologue to camera, into thinking that we're heading to some quite overblown, soapy places. Indeed, it's almost unfortunate that the show appeared just as ABC's "Scandal," which similarly deals with dark Washington deeds, turned into a big hit for the network; the comparisons have been flying thick and fast. But actually, while the show has a few credulity-straining out-there twists (see below), it's mostly admirably restrained and low-key. There are few histrionics or big melodramatic scenes, with the characters generally feeling like human beings rather than plot-delivering devices, all aided by that very Fincher-ish tone, the same one that managed to make the occasionally ludicrous plotting of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" seem viable. It's also something that's aided by the binge-watching model; what might have seen slow-paced if unfolding week to week is more easily absorbed when watched two or three (or thirteen) episodes at a time. Essentially, while each episode is relatively self-contained, it's closer to a long movie than a TV series, and by not needing to stuff every ending, or even ad break, with a twist, Willimon can let the show unfold at its own pace.

The confident ending
**POTENTIAL SPOILERS** And as a further point to that, we kind of loved the ending of the show. Most TV shows even on cable (*cough* "Dexter") feel obliged to throw in a final twist or cliffhanger to ensure that viewers return for the next season. Thanks to the different model, and the general confidence of the show, "House of Cards" needs no such thing. The final episode sees Francis offered the position of Vice President, which the whole season has been heading towards, but he's not yet confirmed. Zoe and her press gang pals are starting to smell something amiss, but they've got a long way to go. Claire seems to be set on a baby, with or without her husband's permission. As such, the pieces are set for the next season, and Willimon (and finale director Allen Coulter) are happy to leave off with Frank & Claire sharing a beautifully-shot nighttime jog, as his blackberry, left at home, portends bad tidings to come. It strikes the right balance of feeling low-key, while still making you want season two to come out as soon as possible.

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  • Amanda | May 30, 2014 11:58 PMReply

    Claire wasn't trying to have a baby, she was visiting an ob/gyn to gather ammunition to blackmail her fired, pregnant employee into dropping her lawsuit. Once she knew how badly her employee needed a particular prescription, Claire cut off the employee's insurance benefits and used that as leverage to settle the case (pretty generously). There may have been a slight whiff of Claire considering it but in the end it was about 95% gamesmanship.

  • ClinicalCynic | March 1, 2014 2:35 PMReply

    Just... Poorly executed. All of the plot twists are foreseeable (except the Zoe wrap up), everyone in DC is not just dumber than Frank, but just plain DUMB. Why are all these seasoned reporters and politicos opening up and exposing their fears and weaknesses to Frank, a man who has been manipulating and screwing people over in DC for 20 years? And are Frank and Claire really the only people capable of controlling their emotions? Nope; the show doesn't work for me. I just don't buy into Frank's supremacy being built on the plot contrivance that everyone else in the world is a weak-willed, insecure moron.

  • Johnson | October 3, 2013 4:43 PMReply

    Good piece but I disagree with a few points:

    1. Robin Wright is brilliant. Her scenes are compelling. All of them.
    2. Love Frank's asides.
    3. His trip back to his alma mater was the low point of the series in my mind. It simply dragged on too long.
    4. I don't notice much of the product placement. And what I do see isn't bothersome.
    5. Re-watching the series again. Can't get enough.

    Great work.

  • Coleman | July 8, 2013 8:23 PMReply

    Between the months of June and September (vacation time) is when I catch up on movies, tv shows, books I have put off. House of Cards has been a fantastic treat, and as a former resident of DC, I am excited for the city, and crew.

    I think Frank and Claire are spectacular. Some of the plots were far fetched, but it reminds me of the show BOSS that was canceled too early on Starz.

    Kudos to Netflix!

  • Jonathan | March 23, 2013 9:42 PMReply

    "no matter how much you mistrust politicians, it's hard to believe that one could kill another and mock it up to make it look like a suicide"

    Keep enjoying that fantasy world.

  • Anna | February 12, 2013 7:00 PMReply

    Enjoyed your review very much. I wish I hadn't seen the British series first as I enjoyed that much more, maybe because more seemed to happen. Don't tell the sponsors but I don't notice product placement! I think it's just part of the background. But I must disagree with you in one respect; this is a story about Francis, so he must remain the strong focus of the story with others revolving around him. Going off of this- for example getting into other stories too much such as Claire's work situation is boring. Maybe I feel they're trying to stretch things out too much. Have they committed to a 10-year run?

  • Scott C | February 12, 2013 12:58 PMReply

    "And the way in which protestors are defused by a gift of barbecue, instantly transforming them into adoring fans, reeks of contempt for the electorate. " If I'm not mistaken, I believe the lobbyist for the Teacher's Union couldn't get the actual teachers there to the protest, filling in with Teamsters and anyone else they could get, which means that those at the protest didn't have a vested interest in it. Also, Linda Vasquez isn't just rolling over for the Stanford favor, she also sees the potential to become VP herself, if Underwood runs & wins a future Presidential race. I agree that these could be stronger, but I felt like you didn't give the full context, which strengthens these plot moves somewhat.

  • Glass | February 12, 2013 11:31 AMReply

    I seriously think you're just looking too hard for products in the things you watch. That's the only explanation for this sensitivity to seeing APPLE products (it's 2013, professionals use that shit) or a character with a soft spot for video games discussing a video game console in a moment of comic relief. Shit, I'm surprised you didn't Did you guys google 'Freddy's BBQ Joint' to see if it was a real place so you can complain about the random, blatant product placement of a rib joint Underwood frequents?

  • I seriously hope you guys ross douthat | February 12, 2013 6:21 AMReply

    I sort of feel that Fincher genuinely likes Apple products and would put 'em in for free lol.

    This was a very good series and I can't wait for another, but it brought home to me that doing a whole season in a weekend kind of sucks? Partly because it means the wait is a full year, not, say, nine months. This felt more like a first half of a season in any case.

    Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright and Corey Stoll were all brilliant. Stoll (and his PA/lover) was pretty much the only half-sympathetic character, which I guess shouldn't matter but does a bit. And I think the famous Father's Day scene was maybe a bit de trop.

  • Alex | February 12, 2013 12:25 AMReply

    One thing I found very unconvincing was the way Zoe joined in on trying to uncover Francis's plot in the last episode or two, especially since she was complicit in the plot and at least in my opinion was not merely a pawn.

  • Ryan | February 11, 2013 9:24 PMReply

    The only episode that I thought was a drag was the one where Frank goes back to his alma mater. It seemed like a transitional episode, meant to give the characters (and audience) a break from the main storylines back in Washington - like the calm before the storm. But I feel like if they wanted to make an episode like that, give us more than just "Frank had a gay relationship in college" that will presumably come back to be used against him in later seasons. I don't know, it just seemed too silly and trivial to be wasting our time with. I just as soon skip this episode of supposed "character development" and get back to the meat of the show. When the show comes out on DVD, this episode will be one of the few I probably will never rewatch.

    I also really liked that they didn't waste much time and killed Peter this season. This immediately put it ahead of Homeland, in my opinion, which would have benefited greatly by killing Brody off in Season 1. One thing that Fincher and Willimon seem to be aware of is avoiding milking obvious storylines for too long.

  • Navas | February 11, 2013 8:58 PMReply

    i didnt really mind the product placement at all. but most of the cons i tend to agree with. i cranked out the series in 2 days. and i need season 2 asap.

  • Scarlett O. | February 11, 2013 8:48 PMReply

    Kevin Spacey truly shines as Underwood. He's devious, arrogant, and deliciously believable. I agree that the character of Zoe has much more potential, as does Claire. If season 2 runs with the court case, I think we'll see Claire blossom on camera.

    Very addictive, I couldn't wait for the next episode, and watched all 13 episodes within about 4 days! Bring on season 2!

  • D Will | February 11, 2013 7:10 PMReply

    I thought the series was excellent. I was thoroughly entertained throughout the entire season. The only con is that, " I can't wait for season 2!! Hurry??!!

  • Farmerfizz | February 11, 2013 5:54 PMReply

    I thought it was excellent! (Episode 8 and the Military School beside.) Spacey was just the right side of pantomine villain, aided and abetted by a fantastic supporting cast. My only critique is why Claire would want an affair with the campest man this side of Christmas? Netflix take a bow for a job well done.

  • Andrew | February 11, 2013 5:34 PMReply

    Pretty spot on pros and cons list. Although I actually like the Richard III, talking to the audience device. It's been used before, sure, but when they let Kevin Spacey give a little smirk or look to the camera, those are some of my favorite moments.

  • Dave | February 11, 2013 4:07 PMReply

    Loving the series so far - up to Ep. 4 - #5 tonight. Questions:
    - Why was Zoe drinking Long Island Ice teas alone? Should've brought in some frat bro to try to hit on her, eventually forcing her departure from bar. That would've made her connection to Frank seem stronger.
    - I noticed Ep 4 didn't have a short scene before the intro - hoping that's the same throughout.
    - What did Francis think was wrong with Zoe's apt? Looked clean enough for a single reporter type. :-)

  • Ugh | February 11, 2013 3:58 PMReply

    The product placement was really the only thing that got to me. There was literally a scene where Frank Underwood & his aide were sitting at a table drinking coffee & they had 9 different Apple products - all on using up battery & with the Apple logo prominently displayed - sitting on the table.

  • Jean Robie | February 11, 2013 3:33 PMReply

    The thing I didn't like about it, especially compared to the British version, is Frank's actions (apart from what he does to poor Peter) aren't especially villainous: he just seems like a conniving politician. The pleasure of seeing him act in truly evil ways was lost. And man, what was the point of that episode at the military school!!??

  • Mass | February 11, 2013 2:24 PMReply

    What's wrong with the product placement? TV/film imitates real life, and in real life people play video games and PS Vitas.

    House of Cards is absolutely awesome and very addicting. Now that Breaking Bad is on its way out, at least I know I can go to House of Cards.

  • mongoosecmr | February 11, 2013 2:31 PM

    I'm sure Sony would love to live in the world you so where people own PS Vitas

  • Mass | February 11, 2013 2:24 PMReply

    What's wrong with the product placement? TV/film imitates real life, and in real life people play video games and PS Vitas.

    House of Cards is absolutely awesome and very addicting. Now that Breaking Bad is on its way out, at least I know I can go to House of Cards.

  • hank | February 11, 2013 2:14 PMReply

    the only thing I truly detested about the series was the uninspired, HDR timelapse credit sequence I was tortured with every time I started a new episode.

  • Karen | February 18, 2013 12:23 AM

    Those of us who live inWashington absolutely love those opening credits. Most movies about DC use the same tired location shots. They've found fresh angles, views that Washington natives know and then some - like the shot of the Nationals ballpark as seen across the river.

    . They have captured capture views of Washington that the natives know and then some

  • Glass | February 12, 2013 11:17 AM

    Yeah I was taken aback by how mediocre those were. Get someone from HBO Sports to shoot that in the future.

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