Netflix’s first major foray into original programming, House of Cards, is a lot like its political subject matter: diverting, cynical, complex, and ultimately hollow. The show stars Kevin Spacey as Francis J. Underwood, a devious congressman who leverages considerable influence as the House majority whip. This not only enables him to further his own career, but positions him to assist in the work of his wife Claire (Robin Wright), who runs a high-profile environmental charity. The two of them have a mysterious, long-game agenda, but their plans are threatened when the new incoming president backs out on a promise to make Underwood his chief of staff. If anything, this merely lights a hotter fire under Underwood, and he launches a new initiative to achieve his aims.
This initiative soon betrays Underwood’s primary M.O. for getting things done: ruthlessly using everyone in his path. Some are willing accomplices, like his right-hand fixer Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly). But others are people who fall uncomfortably into his orbit only to become tools of his game. His primary instruments are ambitious young reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and troubled Pennsylvania Congressman Pete Russo (Corey Stoll), both vulnerable to Underwood’s power for their own reasons. As his scheme unfolds, new crises arise, each requiring Underwood’s urgent attention. But for all his confidence and swagger, Underwood may be losing control of the chessboard.
From its pitch-perfect credit sequence to its final moments, House of Cards is a polished, professional show, confident and compelling. It’s a terrific vehicle for Spacey, whose sinister asides to the camera give the proceedings a unique tonal spin. Wright is superb in her own right, her character just as ruthless and formidable as her husband, and in many ways, Claire is a much more realistic and interesting character than Frank. (I’d put money on both of them getting Emmy nominations for this.) The supporting cast is effectively deployed, highlighted by Stoll, whose substance-abusing bad-boy congressman undergoes several impressive transformations over the course of the season. But Mara, Kelly, Kristen Connelly, Constance Zimmer, and others round out the cast nicely.
So what’s not to like? Well, for one thing, there’s not much substance to it. For all its impressive plot machinations, its end game doesn’t quite justify the Machiavellian build-up. For a while, the mystery of Frank and Claire’s hidden agenda kept me riveted, hoping all the unscrupulous means were in service to some unexpected end. On that score I was disappointed, which leaves the show, in my view, as a commentary on the toxicity and heartlessness of Washington power politics. The point is well made, but hardly earth-shattering. Meanwhile, in order for the Rube Goldberg plot to click along, there are occasional credibility issues, particularly in how Underwood’s rivals continuously fall unwittingly into his sometimes obvious traps.
For all that, I found it a perfectly entertaining thirteen-episode run, well worth watching provided you mitigate your expectations as to where it’s going to end up. The season finale resolves certain plot threads, but provides little closure and felt a little unsatisfying. Still, I’m interested to see where it goes; hopefully, deeper than its slick, cynical surface.