House of Cards - new series from Netflix - an appreciation

I had the opportunity the other day of listening to the star Kevin Spacey and Executive Producer David Fincher on NPR's Fresh Air, about this new dramatic original series from Netflix. So, I got curious about it.

House of Cards is a political drama of Shakespearean proportions, set against the backdrop of American national politics.

Garrett Walker is newly elected President. Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), honorable congressman from South Carolina, House majority whip, (and protagonist of the series) expects that he'd be the Secretary of State. He wasn't. Not used to being jilted, Frank resolves to throw all allegiances out the window and make up a new rule book - his own rule book - by which to play. The other players are Claire (Frank's wife - head of a non-profit), Linda Vasquez (President's chief of staff), Pete Russo (a young congressman from Philadelphia), Doug Stamper (Frank's right hand man), and Zoey Barnes (a young ambitious reporter). The first episode not only introduces the main characters, but also lays out the premise and sets things in motion.

The first two episodes were directed by David Fincher. Having seen The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo fairly recently, I could see some elements of his film language being translated into this work - perhaps even lending a tone to the whole series. Dragon alumna Robin Wright plays Claire Underwood with an athletic grace, a fine combination of ambitious toughness and selfish tenderness. Kate Mara, talented younger sister of Dragon heroine Rooney Mara, animates the waifish Zoey Barnes, the reporter. It is fascinating to see how he uses color, sound, texture and technology to tell the story and to enhance the feel of the story. After all, it is all in the story and David knows that very well. Also, the themes of betrayal, intrigue, and power seem to fascinate David as shown by the two movies I mentioned above. He gets the chance to explore those ideas leisurely in this series.

This is Frank Underwood's game. So, it is Kevin Spacey's game. Not only is he the protagonist, but also the schemer and master puppeteer, directing not just the show, but almost every individual movement of every individual joint of every individual. One thing that very much intrigued me and raised my curiosity while listening to his interview on the radio was this - they used a narrative technique in which Frank looks at and talks directly into the camera, talking directly to the audience - not so much as an internal soliloquy, but as a direct open communication - sharing with us his commentary on whatever was happening there. This really fascinated me. When I started watching the first episode, the first such opportunity came up pretty quick, when Frank runs out of his row house in response to cries of distress from the neighbor's dog (a victim of a hit and run). His expression, his voice, the words, and the scene - all blend into this crisp coldness of the December evening (Frank and Claire were dressing to go out to attend new year party when this occurs) that sent a chill up my spine as I watched it. It was brilliant. The use of this technique adds a palpable texture to Frank's character and to the drama in general that otherwise would not be possible. And in the three episodes I watched so far, they have not overdone it. I hope it remains so.

Since this is a series, the plot lines are still evolving. The wayward young congressman Russo and the ambitious young reporter Barnes hold some promise. At the same time, there are a few lines I did not or could not appreciate. A good amount of screen time was given to Claire's non-profit activities, but it was not clear to me what they are doing (something to do with clean water) or what the hoopla was about. Similar amount of time was given to show Claire running (for exercise) through DC streets. Again, not sure if this is leading to anything bigger than Ms. Wright's impressive athletic structure.

One possible serious drawback I foresee in the set up is this - when you have a schemer like Frank as the protagonist - a sort of Koutilya, Machiavelli and Shakuni all rolled into one - you also need a formidable opponent to give him challenge. Holmes had his Dr. Moriarty. So far, I haven't seen evidence of such a character. I hope there is one lurking in the shadows somewhere. The two plot lines that reached resolution felt like watching a Bengal tiger hunt in a domestic sheep pen. There is a poetic saying in Telugu - రవి గాననిచో కవి గాంచునే గదా! - what the Sun doesn't see, a poet (writer) is able to envision. The ruse used to bring down the prospective Secretary of State, Michael Kern sounds like a news bite from present day confirmation hearings of Sen. Chuck Hagel. That is the power of writing!!

It is good to see Sakina Jaffrey in a prominent role. I was amused to note that she was cast as a Latina (Linda Vasquez, chief of staff). Why couldn't that character be an Indian American? Talking about which - there was a big eyed Indian boy (young man I should say to be politically correct) in the congressional intern team that gets charged by Frank to draft the new education policy. Robin Wright is right for the role - coolly competent and ambitiously subdued - she brings a quiet strength to her Claire Underwood. Kate Mara as Zoey Barnes - I haven't made up my mind yet about her.

There is a lot to like about this series.
There are a lot of layers.
I am sure I will come back to this again and again to peel them and savor them one by one.

Now a question to the reader: What Shakespearean references have you noticed so far in the show? Please do share.

Link to NPR Fresh Air Interview with Spacey and Fincher
An Intro on Weekend Edition
Trailer on Youtube

Netflix is a subscription video service available at


Mike Kitchen said…
Sounds like an interesting show. Unfortunately, I don't have Netflix. I like Kevin Spacey, and I can see him portraying the character well.

I don't watch much TV, but a new show that I've found interesting is The Following with Kevin Bacon.
Vasu said…
I saw the trailer and it looked interesting.

I don't understand US politics well so don't know if this is something I can enjoy..

Your review and the fact that David Fincher directed the first two episodes are making me to watch this.

Unknown said…
Political dramas are not my cup of tea, however I did like reading your post very much :) It was very well thought out and made the show/characters/concept all sound interesting even if I don't like the subject matter, which makes me think that if you did happen to write about a show with a subject matter I found interesting I would then, certainly, decide to watch it hehe
Kottapali said…
Jennifer, I tend to do that, it seems. Several people commented on my reviews before that it made them want to read the book or watch the piece. Unless of course I hated it - in which case I probably won't waste my time writing about it. :)
Vasu, if you already have Netflix, no harm in trying. I finished about 10 episodes and my rating now stands at 65%.
Mike, thanks for the comment. I don't watch TV either in general. I got into Netflix purely for the movies. Now and then, I try one of these series. So far, nothing really caught my attention.
Kevin Spacey and David Fincher.. Wow! I don't know how but I gotta watch this! You did a great job in making me curious! :)