YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

TV review: 'House of Cards' is deliciously spiteful

Kevin Spacey plays a vindictive politician and Robin Wright is his equally matched wife in Netflix's remake of the British miniseries. And no waiting — all 13 episodes are available for viewing.

February 01, 2013|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Kevin Spacey is a vindictive congressman in "House of Cards."
Kevin Spacey is a vindictive congressman in "House of Cards." (Melinda Sue Gordon / Associated…)

For those who follow the Gospel According to Netflix, Friday is the day the world changes, instantly and forever. The day when viewers, too long oppressed by commercials, cliffhangers and increasingly erratic scheduling dictated by greedy network overlords, rise up in glorious revolution and seize the means of consumption.

As of 12:01 a.m. Friday, all 13 episodes of the highly pedigreed "House of Cards" — Adapted from a British miniseries! Directed, at least initially, by "The Social Network's" David Fincher! Starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright! — were made totally and instantly available.

Can you hear the people binge?

Now, Americans watch television in many ways for all sorts of reasons, and it is absurd to imagine that a system that survived the quiz show scandal, the retirement of Walter Cronkite, the explosion of niche channels and the recent reboot of "Charlie's Angels" will fall before a single show. But just as "The Sopranos" turned HBO into a game-changer and "Mad Men" re-invented AMC, "House of Cards" makes Netflix an undisputed player in serialized drama.

PHOTOS: Celebrities by The Times

Indeed, if the rest of the series is as good as the two episodes released early for review (the fact that Netflix made only the episodes directed by Fincher available is slightly worrisome), "House of Cards" will in all probability become the first nontelevised television show to receive an Emmy nomination, or four.

With a sweet 'n' deadly Southern accent he may have been saving for Just Such an Occasion, Spacey plays Francis (Frank) Underwood, a longtime congressman and the current House majority whip who, having just helped put the new president-elect in office, is celebrating his certain nomination for secretary of State.

We meet Frank moments before the victory gala, when a neighbor's dog is hit by a car. Dispatching his bodyguard to fetch the owners, Frank hurries over to the suffering animal. Addressing the camera with aggressive charm that will become his hallmark, he explains that only a few people in this world are truly willing to do what needs to be done.

Then he kills the dog.

So when the president's new chief of staff, Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey), a woman Underwood also helped up the ladder, informs him that the president needs him to remain in Congress more than he needs him in the Cabinet, it's fairly clear what will happen next. Even without the icy prodding of his equally controlled and controlling wife, Claire (Wright), Frank is not the sort of man to suck up a slight and move on. No, he will, instead, be dining on each and every person who stands between him and his new goal — to topple this administration.

"I almost pity him," Frank says when he catches sight of the man who got the secretary of State nomination. "He didn't ask to be put on my platter. When I carve him up and toss him to the dogs, only then will he confront that brutal, inescapable truth: 'My God, all I ever amounted to was chitlins.'"

Filled to the brim with similar asides and long melodic runs of silky and sadistic political diplomacy, this role seems tailor-made for Spacey, with his still-boyish face and double-entendre eyes. As in the original version, Frank turns the camera into a confidant, directly addressing the audience with exposition, insight or simply a complicit glance.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT | '30 Rock': The five best moments from seven seasons

Spacey's Frank is more unapologetically brutal than his British progenitor, but executive producer and writer Beau Willimon wisely makes him just as canny and literate, giving the actor deliciously baroque monologues that capture, in cadence and poetry, the seething fury of an ambitious man who has too long done the bidding of others.

The show's view of government may be off-puttingly jaundiced, but it's impossible not to root for Frank. In this age of downsizing and infrastructure change, who hasn't fantasized about devastating professional revenge?

All this does make it difficult for anyone to share a scene with Spacey without getting snacked upon. Fortunately, his wife, Claire, is played by Wright, who is clearly capable of facing down a Shakespeare Festival's worth of ravening kings and hissing schemers. The calculating political wife has become such a trope that she practically has her own Bratz doll, but Claire is a whole new sort of creature.

Neither ingratiating nor gauntlet throwing, she lives in the long, cool pause of appraisal, occupying silence with a carefully tended ferocity. Of the two, she is no doubt the more deadly, but their's is a marriage of equals, based in love — inexplicable and at times disturbing but undeniable and fascinating.

Los Angeles Times Articles