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A Dastardly Business: Netflix's House of Cards Remake Reviewed
Jess Cotton , February 18th, 2013 09:25

Jess Cotton gets to grips with David Fincher's Netflix-hosted remake of the classic BBC series

Rumours have been brewing that the recent blizzard on the US's north coast had been orchestrated by Netflix, as a kind of logical fallout of the increasing omnipotence of cloud computing. The surmise is a jibe at the on-demand video streaming firm's decision to release the entire 13 episodes of House of Cards, a remake of the BBC's much feted 1990 drama, in one go. It is an extraordinarily pricey, financially risky strategy, with David Fincher of The Social Network-fame at its helm and Kevin Spacey delivering the stardust, as a means of drawing in new fans. The idea peddled by the video start-up is to "empower" viewers to consume content at their will. Netflix prefers the term "marathon" to "binge"-viewing, but this stamina test has something disquietingly authoritarian about it. Before you even sign up, they've micromanaged your choices. The show's success might well rest on the shoulders of its supine audience; but this isn't TV on your time, but your prime time on Netflix's terms.

When Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop was first serialized, American fans would congregate on the New York docks, frantically awaiting the latest instalment from across the pond. The serialisation of novels is a thing of the past, but TV, that ultimate tool of instant gratification, has long relied on providing entertainment in quick-fix shots. Netflix is a relatively new phenomenon in the UK, but directors are already surmising that the ripple effect of the venture into original content programming promises to create seismic shifts in the TV landscape. Flooded with a surfeit of choice but paucity of content, the last decade has given rise to the channel flipper, but also to a golden age of HBO drama. If Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, describes his show as "hyper-serialised," in the way that it doubles-back, tying up its threads in clever plot twists, House of Cards might well be deemed de-serialised. Its storyline favours narrative over the episodic – we are in the automat zone of "post-play," Netflix's terminology for segueing into the next episode without prompt. The promise is not that you can keep watching, but that you will. Bypassing traditional broadcasting networks, speed is of the essence – there are no spoilers, no recaps and no ads. Instead there's compulsively easy-to-watch drama, slickly dressed (never demanding) entertainment.

The story's been told many a time before. Fincher takes the BBC drama of political intrigue, set at the tail end of Thatcher's government, which is in turn based on a novel by Michael Dobbs, and plants its pernicious seeds in contemporary Washington. "Bad, for a greater good" is the motto, though such results are to be reaped by only one figure, the Democratic House Majority Whip, Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey. One of the most gripping aspects of the congressman's machinations and political predatoriness is the way that the story conflates Shakespearean tales of power and revenge, and draws out its elements of menace, making it seem like a cross between The West Wing and a Southern Gothic tale. The show opens on New Year's Eve 2013, amid celebrations for the newly-elected President Garrett Walker, who in temperament and appearance has more than a touch of Obama. The atmosphere has the seeming glow of an era of success and prosperity and Frank, who addresses us in a series of theatrical asides - a device inherited from the original - expects to be duly rewarded with a high-level cabinet post.

But such tacit promises are swiftly broken, and the position is appointed to someone else. Spurned, Frank quickly sets out to brew his convoluted revenge plot. "They've done us a great favour," he tells his chief of staff and co-conspirator, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly). "We are no longer bound to allegiances." Underwood goes hunting after bigger fish, namely the Vice President's office. Spacey has become a familiar face on the London stage, most recently for his role as Richard III at the Old Vic, and the characterisation seems to come almost too naturally. Where the British Francis, played by Ian Richardson, is coldly calculating and reticently upper-tee ("I couldn't possibly comment"), Underwood is the American self-made man incarnate, the son of a peach farmer from a backwater South Carolina town. He reveals his cards to us with an equal dose of delightful camp and conspiratorial menace. It is a technique he employs with all characters that come within his treacherous ambit – it's not a question of one turn deserves another (he's no believer), but a favour from him demands "unquestionable loyalty" (read: corruption).

House of Cards doesn't do reverential, subtle takes on Capitol Hill; it's interested less in interrogating policy than in exposing the dark machinations and shady deals behind the incessant stream of Washington's power-capital. The city is cast in a sombre metallic-blue glare: dark shadows fall on the neo-classical architecture, revealing its gothic trimmings. Cinematographer Eigil Bryld is particularly talented at seamless scene-shifts. Rather than tracking the movement of capital, the camera is concerned with traded secrets as political currency. There are no rules, let alone ideology; policy appears as a mere afterthought to the more pressing contingencies of personal grudges. It is a country of old, white men. But the women are the keepers of secrets, and the lingering sense is that they will, despite it all, come off the better. Frank is unapologetically ruthless but he has been in congress for 23 years. Journalist, Zoe Barnes, played by Kate Mara, is probably no more than 23 herself. She's a familiar figure – fiercely ambitious, impertinent and willing to sleep with her source to get ahead. She swiftly rises up the ranks within a few episodes from metro reporter at The Washington Herald (presumably a stand-in for the Post), turning down a job as chief White House correspondent, for the freedom of the blogosphere at the online news site, Slugline, hailed as the new POLITICO. Education overhaul is first on the agenda for the incoming administration, and Underwood duly sets to work sabotaging the "old school tax and spend liberal" bill and feeding it straight to Barnes. Underwood and Barnes's relationship is purely contractual: she pledges to protect his identity on the condition that she prints anything he tells her and doesn't ask any questions. "Power is a lot like real estate," Underwood purrs. "It's all about location, location, location. The closer you are to the source, the higher your property value."

One of the most successfully stage-managed sub-plots is the destruction of Congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), an "errand boy" drawn into Underwood's pernicious clutches. Coke-sniffing and prostitute-soliciting, he's hardly a poster child for governor, and his own vulnerability makes him a perfect target from all sides. The writing is, for the most part, sharp. But it does slip all too easily into the ham-fisted, clipped by Underwood's sinister cadences and overcooked Southern accent. "This is how you devour a whale, one bite at a time," he tells his chief of staff, though there is nothing more leviathan than Frank's own scheming. The acting is good, but not excellent. These aren't adroitly fleshed-out portrayals for the simple reason that the characters are little more than the sum of their motives. Underwood's wife, Claire (Robin Wright), is the most convincing character. She is all icy detachment to Frank's Machiavellian charm; a calculating Lady Macbeth-figure in jogging-bottoms, kindling her husband's ambition, willing to tolerate his affairs as political investment and corrupt her charitable organisation for her own advancement. She's always in character, but Wright adroitly draws out her vulnerability. In robotic fashion, she hands a homeless man a twenty-dollar bill, which he returns to her in the form of a swan. In a surprising twist, she takes up origami and swans start cropping up everywhere, a loaded leitmotif for a life unlived. Other characters serve as Frank's partners in crime, some willingly, others incognizant.

"We're in the same boat now," Frank tells Zoe, "I can only save one of us from drowning." But as the season closes it looks, contrary to expectation, that it will be his career that goes under. Without the suspenseful cliffhangers written into serialized drama, these episodes close with a nonplussed wait-and-see attitude; it is our own sense of dramatic irony and our investment in the risky stakes that will determine our own loyalty to Netflix's equally precarious strategies.

House of Cards is available now on Netflix