David Lynch. Quentin Tarantino. Martin Scorsese. Steven Spielberg. These are just a few of the powerhouse names in Hollywood that over the years have taken time out from their crammed schedules to try their dab hand at a TV show instead. It’s not hard to see why. With the American film industry being increasingly overrun by remakes, reboots and adaptations of the latest young adult best-sellers, there’s a scope for creativity and audacity in TV that is rather inviting for filmmakers, not to mention the opportunity for actors to infuse life into a character over the course of a few seasons rather than a couple of hours.
Kevin Spacey as manipulative congressman Frank Underwood.
David Fincher is the latest esteemed director to join the ever expanding club of TV aficionados with House of Cards, a Washington DC-set political drama (which also happens to be a remake of a 1990 UK miniseries of the same name, but let’s not allow that to discredit the point made above) of which he directed the first two episodes. The pilot sees US congressman Frank Underwood being denied the much coveted position of Secretary of State, despite initial promises made by the newly-elected President he helped get into the Oval Office in the first place. But Underwood is a dangerously single-minded man with connections all over Washington, and he will not stop at anything as he proceeds to systematically manipulate and take down every individual he feels has betrayed him.
If you want to put a label on it, House of Cards plays out like the bastard son of The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s witty and fiercely intelligent White House-set drama, and ABC’s OTT soap opera Revenge. This means that, while there is enough political tension to keep Wingers gripped throughout these thirteen episodes, the personal vendetta narrative is likely to hook in those whose attention span shuts down the minute characters start discussing the intricacies of passing a new education bill whilst having to contend with teacher strikes.
But never mind the political setting, as it is merely a backdrop to a host of truly complex characters – none of which, it must be said, are particularly likeable. In fact, there are enough dark, twisted and hopeless individuals to suggest we are in a David Fincher movie, but they are still undeniably fascinating to watch. If there’s a predominant theme running throughout the show it’s that ambition and greed go often hand in hand and House of Cards is not afraid to show the corrosive effect this lethal combination can have on the soul. Kate Mara plays a journalist who begins a perverse relationship with Frank Underwood just to get an exclusive; when Frank’s wife Claire (a glacial Robin Wright) finds out about the affair, the first thing she composedly asks is how will the young reporter help advance their political agenda. Corey Stoll, the closest thing the series has to a sympathetic character, happens to be an alcoholic, coke-snorting congressman who shouldn’t be working on Capitol Hill in the first place, let alone running for Governor.
At the centre of this intricate web of deceit is Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, clearly having a whale of a time playing an influential remorseless bastard. In the hands of a lesser actor Frank could have turned out to be a caricature, but Spacey plays him like an opulent Machiavellian character with Theodore Roosevelt’s oratorical exuberance and Lyndon B. Johnson’s domineering personality. What makes him all the more entertaining is his propensity to break the 4th wall, as he shares his plans and most intimate thoughts directly to the camera (“Proximity to power deludes some into believing they wield it. I put an end to that sort of thinking before it begins”).
As is often the case with innovative TV series these days, there’s a feeling that the clever premise for House of Cards might feel stretched for a second season. However, a dark twist in the final episodes puts a welcome spin on proceedings, as plenty of clues seem to point out that, should Netflix (which bought the rights to broadcast the whole first season) decide to grant congressman Underwood another thirteen episode term, the show might evolve into a conspiracy drama not far removed from All The President’s Men. And for those of you who like some brains with their entertainment, that sounds like too good a proposition to turn down.