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In a welcome surprise, the Netflix Original series (well, it is based on a British TV show so I don’t know how original it can be) House of Cards debuted today starring Kevin Spacey with the debut episode “Chapter 1″ directed by David Fincher. Stuffed like a bell pepper full of political intrigue, the first episode gives a glimpse into the characters and the plot.
The first feeling I had watching the first episode was the pacing reminded me of the film State of Play, also adapted from a British television series. The cinematography definitely felt like Fincher, hearkening back to his work on Zodiac with lush tones and a beautiful use of shadows. Oddly, the show decides to allow monologues by Kevin Spacey’s character Francis Underwood privately to the audience. Underwood is a U.S. Congressman and Majority Whip for the Democrats, once promised a seat as Secretary of State only for it to be pulled away from him after the election of President Garrett Walker. So far I’m not sold on the use of these little conversations with the viewer. Not that it cannot work but it works better in theatre than film. It tends to be dropped at midpoint of most shows (Saved by the Bell my young mind runs directly towards) but with this Netflix show being edited and completed for the entire season to be watched today, there’s really no chance for taking it out early. Everything good and bad stays without a response from the viewing public. I think this will be a strong suit to the viewing format.
It’s hard to talk about Kevin Spacey without sounding like a fanboy. Spacey is one of the best actors to come out of the 1990s and with him taking breaks from Hollywood to run a British theatre, and only coming back to usually take a money grab role like 21, his presence has been missed in something meaty. There is such power in his expressions and more importantly, the inflections in his southern drawl that come at the right time. Spacey sells you every word of dialogue. So far his character is calculating in his strategies, even when being drawn by a push up bra or staying up late playing Call of Duty.
Robin Wright plays his wife Claire Underwood, having her own sideplot about a grassroots organization she’s trying to take to more ambitious means. Something about the character seems to be handled better than most “strong behind their man” wives in political dramas and while it may just be due to Wright’s presence, you really get a sense this is the character that inspires Francis’ ambition. She knows exactly how to trigger his motivation.
As in most political dramas it is the press that plays a major role in helping the politics get dirty. Blogger Zoe Barnes is tired of not getting any valuable stories in her Washington paper and after finding out she got checked out by Underwood, finds a way to get a front page story with his help. Barnes is played by Kate Mara, whose sister Rooney of course worked with Fincher on the Social Network and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She plays her role well in the first episode and simmers just enough to play tough with big names while still showing a bit of apprehension and fear. She knows she’s outmatched by Underwood but she won’t admit it when attempting to common ground.
In a side plot for this debut episode is the characters of Christina Gallagher and Pete Russo played by Kristen Connolly and Corey Stoll. Stoll is a congressman from Pennsylvania whose private conflicts seem to be preparing him for the role of pawn while Gallagher plays his assistant with benefits. Sakina Jaffrey plays the White House Chief of Staff who has to give Underwood the news of being pushed aside for Secretary of State, but also needing him in congress for what she calls more important matters. Didn’t care for her performance but stoicism was all it really needed for this episode.
In 56 minutes, the show prepares you to like Spacey while wondering when the first shoe is going to drop and when his leaking scheme is going to backfire on him. If the script was a six shooter, it’s firing blanks on some lines. It just feels recycled from Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom and The West Wing. But if half are blanks, the other half fire. I didn’t care at all about Gallagher and Russo until Russo mentioned the three words he expected Christina to want to hear. He then said them: “Lick my balls.” Stuff like that pulls you right back into the material. There are other lines like when Zoe and Francis are talking about why Education will be the first bill and Zoe states it is because, “Anyone can get behind children.” I think that line was supposed to be awkward on purpose. Zoe also has a great line telling the guy who wanted to go up into her apartment, “You’re really sweet. But if I was going to fuck you? You’d know.” More men need to be told this.
Overall, strong opening episode. I agree with Spacey that often, viewers “binge view” so releasing all of the episodes at the same time won’t hurt, especially since this is a Netflix production. It’s a lovely future to have new productions debut in their entirety on Netflix. If people enjoyed the first season they will finish it over the weekend and tell their friends if it’s worth their time. Fincher and Spacey are names in which you expect a strong product and in Chapter 1, it’s delivered. Hopefully that combination can deliver in the next episode, watchable whenever.
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