“House of Cards” Season 1 Review: An Engrossing and Cynical Political Thriller


By Wesley Emblidge

Kevin Spacey in "House of Cards"
Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards”

Note: Netflix made the decision to release the entire first season of their new show all at once online, so although this is a review of that first season, it will only spoil plot points from the pilot.

The political system, especially in America, is rarely portrayed in positive light in film and television. We use our free speech to criticize the government a lot, from the biting satire of films like “Wag the Dog,” to the look inside the difficulties of actually getting things done in the local governments of “The Wire.” As a society we often like to demonize politicians as cold-blooded power mongers, and the new show “House of Cards” taps right into that mindset. It’s a dark, vindictive series following Congressman Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) on his never ending journey for more power and control in Washington. The show struggles a lot with juggling an excessive number of characters and makes a few odd choices in style that don’t always work, but thanks to the ruthless, cynical nature of the show mixed with a great cast and style, “House of Cards” is about as entertaining as political thrillers can get.

You know that Underwood isn’t a very feeble guy when you meet him in the first scene of the pilot, as he breaks the neck of a dog with his bare hands. The dog was about to die and was in pain, and Underwood defines himself as “a man who will do the necessary things, the unpleasant things too.” Underwood is betrayed by the newly elected president, who promised him Secretary of State in exchange for his support on the campaign trail. You half expect Underwood to run into the Oval Office screaming at the president demanding the position, but he’s smarter than that. The first season essentially follows Underwood’s scheming over the next couple years to win his way to more power. To be more specific than that would spoil a lot of the tactics Underwood uses to control and manipulate what feels like half of the capital into maneuvering him into the perfect positions.

As I mentioned before, the series makes one of the many mistakes we see on shows like “Game of Thrones” or “The Walking Dead,” and that’s being overstuffed. There are so many characters on “House of Cards” who don’t even get to do anything interesting the entire season. The writers constantly try to force Underwood’s wife (Robin Wright) into various situations or give her her own storylines, but not a single one ever ends up being interesting. Others, like journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) or congressman Anthony Russo (Corey Stoll) take a while to fit into the overarching story, but as soon as their plotlines start going and get interesting they fit right in.

The show is adapted from a British miniseries of the same name by writer Beau Willimon (nominated for an Oscar for the bland political thriller “The Ides of March”), who tries a number of stylistic things that don’t always quite work. They’re little things, but always pull you out of the moment. For one, Underwood is constantly monologuing to the camera, explaining his plans and ideas, which feels like it belongs is a sketch comedy show rather than a political thriller. The way time is conveyed is also really strange, episodes can end and pick up right after each other, or there can be a six-month gap right in the middle of one of them. This is really poorly conveyed, a character will just say out of nowhere how they’ve “been doing this for sixth months!” and you’ll have to take a step back.

Of course, the show does a lot of things really well. It’s got a great, cold style to it, which makes sense since the first two episodes were directed by David Fincher (“Zodiac,” “Fight Club”), a director who never shies away from the darker side of the story. You’re also never confused as to what’s happening, something you might expect to happen while watching a high profile drama like this. I was engrossed and fully aware of Underwood’s plans throughout the episodes.

And speaking of Underwood, Spacey does a fantastic job at embodying the cynical politician. It may be a slight variation of the act he does in almost all his films, but he does it so well that it’s hard to complain. And as much as writer Willimon struggles with the other characters, Underwood ranks up there with Don Draper and Walter White as one of the most engrossing men being portrayed on television today. You don’t like him, but at the same time I find myself grinning when he makes some progress or one of his tactics pays off.

Ultimately, “House of Cards” leaves me wanting one thing: more. The show has been renewed for second season from Netflix, and with the same team coming back and maybe some more time to take viewers reactions into account, we may even see an even tighter, more entertaining season than the first.

4/5 Stars