I appreciate the irony that as someone who is usually some way ahead of most people when it comes to watching television series, for House of Cards I am a fair way behind the crowd. That’s because although it’s been available to Netflix subscribers for several months (premièring the whole season simultaneously internationally in February), I’m a loyal Lovefilm girl, so had to wait for it to actually be released on dvd. The irony really comes from the fact that I’ve been downloading/streaming television for years, and also been a great advocate of watching series in “box set runs”; yet I ended up watching House of Cards in quite a broken up fashion because of the delay between the dvds being sent. So I’m late to the party and not really appropriately dressed, but now that I’m here, I’m the biggest fan.
Within just a few minutes of the first episode I was utterly hooked. I was so engrossed I forgot to drink my cup of tea, and when I surfaced 3 episodes later it was completely cold. Netflix have done the incredible, they’ve made a television series that’s better than almost anything else on television. I was worried when it was first announced that it may be limited by budget, but the production values are astonishing, just what we’ve come to expect from the major broadcast networks with budgets per episode comparable to many films. I was also worried that the creative team’s ambitions may be tethered by a drive to appeal to as wide a market as possible, and the inevitable (yet incorrect) belief that to do that you must be dumb. Nothing is further from the case though, House of Cards is complex, subtle and fast. I wonder if audiences who aren’t familiar with US politics (either through the real world or through The West Wing) would struggle to follow. There are elegant attempts to explain how everything works, but it may be too steep a learning curve for some.
Even if you’re not following the twists of the plot however, the characters carry you through. Each manages that neat trick of seeming complex, but actually being very straightforward. They all have their simple motivations – being in charge, being in control, being first, being right, being popular, being in the circle, being outside the circle; and they all have their weaknesses to overcome or work around. The true variation in the characters, and their true power comes from their levels of self-awareness – Kevin Spacey’s character knows not only what his own strengths and weaknesses are and how to make the most of them, but also knows everyone else’s and how to manipulate them. The younger characters don’t know when they’re in over their head and that’s what opens them up to manipulation.
The characters are fascinating and the relationships between them equally so. I was pleasantly surprised at how often the writers avoided cliché and found interesting ways to twist them on their head. Strong relationships coming from freedom rather than restraint, truths being told and promises kept when no one expects them. No one in this is really a good guy or a bad guy, it’s not possible to really like anyone, but neither is it possible to really hate them. Their individual actions may draw understanding or disbelief, but they all combine to make such complexity that reactions and judgements such as like/dislike or good/bad are far too simplistic.
The performances of course back up these characters. Spacey is charming and loathsome all at once. I struggled with his accent a little (as did he when he got angry), but I got over it. The breaking of the fourth wall where he talks to camera was an elegant way to not just deliver exposition and character insight, but surprisingly provided a huge amount of humour. The chemistry between he and his wife (Robin Wright) and the young journalist (Kate Mara) are fascinating and each does their fair share of scene stealing from him, which tells you all you need to know about just how good they are.
I had hopes, but not expectations for this show and am thrilled at how well it turned out. The series felt like a show really driven by the creative team, not by the studio or broadcast executives, or even by popularity or critical acclaim. For example I was really impressed that despite having the same freedom as cable shows when it came to violence, language and nudity, they showed impressive restraint and held each back so that when they were used, it was for full impact. Many cable shows feel like they’re being gratuitous just because they can (yes, Game of Thrones I’m looking firmly at you). My only real frustration with the series was that rather than building to an ending, the last two episodes actually felt comparatively flat and anticlimactic after an explosive episode a little way from the end.
I heartily recommend House of Cards to anyone looking for a smart and challenging drama. It’s not an easy series to watch because the complexity of the characters means you occasionally find yourself understanding their actions even if they’re actually appalling. I look forward to season 2, and I also look forward to the impact that it has on the major cable and network broadcasters – it’s time to raise their game if they don’t want to get overrun.