House of Cards does just about everything right.
It’s smart and quick, but also lets things simmer for a few episodes while exploring other plot points. In the premiere when our fourth wall is gently laid to rest by Francis Underwood’s country-gentleman voice, nothing feels out of place or canned, it’s all so natural and riveting. We’ve discussed how Netflix is taking over the world before, but they’re really being too modest with what they’ve achieved here. A brilliant show that can be streamed all at once is competing with shows that have strict run times, write in commercial breaks, and adhere to network policies. There is so much more freedom for the House of Cards team, the entire production is a commercial for the future of television, pointed directly at the networks. See what can be achieved without you- I can almost hear Francis saying it.
Someone had to pay for it though, and the brand-names-per-minute rate is very high, but there’s really nothing fake or extraneous about it. That is the exact same number of people you’d see on iPhones if you were to jump on the D.C. metro right now. This honest overuse of technology doesn’t interrupt the plot at all, and sometimes hinges it, like the texting sequences between Francis and Zoe. Other times it’s a more subtle character point. In the 1990’s original miniseries, Francis hunts quail, in this he plays Call of Duty. That’s genius to me.
That brings me to discuss House of Cards as an adaptation. It’s a third generation adaptation, as there was a book before the original miniseries. The most obvious liberty they took in the adaptation was moving the entire story over the Atlantic. It works perfectly, and because of the 23 year difference in the two series, there’s almost more at stake for our American Francis, because we can’t escape how current the show is and how relevant every move made is. Big ticket issues like education, natural gas, and the fine line between politics and lobbying are brought to life in a way that’s more revealing than any political talk show on the air today.
While watching, you can’t help but draw parallels to other political dramas, The West Wing comes immediately to mind. Think of House of Cards as The West Wing’s evil twin: characters that play similar roles in the political landscape, but who are all working against each other and sometimes against the president (As long as it works to their advantage). But what makes House of Cards shine is the pure, unadulterated scheming that goes on, and it’s so good. I mean, look at that promo picture, Francis literally has blood on his hands. Francis and his wife Claire start off by combining their efforts and their influence in different spheres to get what they want. They have nearly nightly catch-up sessions where they discuss the progress made so far. Sharing a single cigarette, the two plot their next moves, always making decisions “together”. Without giving too much away, I can tell you their interets begin to diverge. Drama!
We also watch the ambitious and charming journalist Zoe Barnes get intertwined with Francis’s efforts. The viewer relationship with Zoe is very much love/hate, and with each episode we watch her character develop through making dicy and possibly illegal decisions. Yes, forming an alliance with a U.S. Representative is a major plus for any journalist’s career, but what results verges on sometimes creepy. Zoe is also just a bad ass bitch.
House of Cards has indefinitely led me to believe great fiction doesn’t have to be escapist, or cast over the physicality of a different time or age- House of Cards is here proving that now is a perfect time for an incredible story.