“Nobody’s a boy scout. Not even boy scouts,” drawls Kevin Spacey’s Francis “Frank” Underwood. As the mastermind congressman suggests, all players in Netflix’s “House of Cards” have sharp teeth and like the taste of blood. The new series, which is based on the original BBC production, is executive produced and helmed in part by David Fincher, and has the cool grey-gold look and streamlined efficiency of the director’s work.
Majority whip House Representative Frank is thrown over for what he viewed as a shoo-in Secretary of State nomination. Instead of pickling in bitterness, he sees the snub as chum in the water. Frank goes along with his foreseeable future in congress, all copacetic smiles and ingratiating cooperation, while secretly hatching a devious plan to dismantle the entire office of the newly inaugurated President. When Frank is approached by fresh-faced Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a young Washington Herald reporter desperate for a break and wielding an incriminating photo of the congressman, he treats the blackmail as a win-win situation. He strategically leaks juicy news items to Zoe -- insider documents that put egg on the faces of his targets -- and she gets a series of front-page Herald scoops.
A slew of other polished yet unsavory characters are also swimming around in the D.C. shark tank, including piggish party-boy Congressman Russo (Corey Stoll), Frank’s henchman aide (Michael Kelly) and, last but certainly not least, Frank’s calm, ruthless wife, Claire (Robin Wright), who oversees her charity Clean Water Initiative with an iron fist. She oversees Frank with an equal stranglehold, relishing his plan to get angry and get even, and even buying him a rowing machine to keep his body as sharp as his mind. This proves pertinent during Frank’s first information exchange with Zoe, when the two have a Bond-esque meeting seated in front of Thomas Eakins’ “Biglin Brothers Racing” at the National Gallery of Art. The key is to rock the boat without falling in, Frank tells Zoe. She may not fully understand that Frank means to bite the boat in half.
Spacey is delightfully high-camp as Frank. He knocks his eerily placid voice down a register and slides around like a pig in shit on the congressman’s drawn-out Southern vowels. From a script standpoint, Frank functions as the lead character but also as the master of ceremonies, turning to the camera every few minutes (as did the great Ian Richardson in the original) to describe the power-players in the room, or to demonstrate the delicate art of turning a conversation upside down and into his well-tailored pocket. This could play as a hackneyed convention -- or clunky exposition -- but with Fincher’s sleek direction and Spacey’s commitment to the villainous role it has an alluring effect.