Judge Gordon Sullivan's condo is built out of playing cards.
Our review of House of Cards (1993), published May 13th, 2005, is also available.
Ruthless and cunning.
We are living in the future. My great-grandmother honestly thought you had to keep all electrical outlets plugged in or otherwise the electricity would leak out. My grandmother remembered a life before television, and my father grew up with three channels. Though satellite and cable TV were around for my youth, they didn't seem to change all that much—a bit more nudity and profanity if you turned the dials and had the right hookup, but nothing quite like streaming video. Flipping between three channels it was nearly impossible to imagine the ubiquity of television and movies in the age of broadband internet. Of course, that brings content creators (the studios) into competition with content providers (now streaming services instead of broadcasters), and no matter how much bandwidth, there is we still face the problem of having unlimited "channels" but nothing to watch. Netflix decided to kill two birds with one stone, financing its own original shows. It makes a lot of sense, cutting out the "middleman" of the studios while giving viewers something to worth watching. House of Cards, one of the first of such offerings, is near-perfect popcorn television, giving viewers excellent acting, sharp dialogue, and a story that it's easy to get lost in for 11 hours. The show is so good that this DVD release feels a bit superfluous.
Facts of the Case
Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey, American Beauty) is the majority Whip for the Democratic Party in Congress; that means his job is to ensure that members of his party vote appropriately. He's the consummate wheeler-dealer. However, as the series opens, he's just helped get a new president elected. His thanks is supposed to be a job as Secretary of State, but he's "too important in Congress" to be promoted. This puts Francis on the warpath and these thirteen episodes deal with his revenge as he gets his charity running wife (Robin Wright, The Princess Bride) and an up-and-coming reporter (Kate Mara, American Horror Story) on his side. All thirteen episodes of House of Cards: The Complete First Season are presented on four discs.
House of Cards is essentially a straight-up revenge fantasy. Everyone in Washington is a monster, but Francis Underwood is our monster. From the opening moments, we're with him because he talks to us, breaking the fourth wall. While he cuts all sorts of nasty deals to get what he wants, he has two things on his side. The first is a kind of integrity. Sure, Francis lies, cheats, and steals, but he does so only because he was provoked. We get the sense that he wouldn't be quite so vile if he'd just been given the role of Secretary of State. The second saving grace is that he's obviously good at his job. I wouldn't want him for a boss, but there's something marvelous about the competence at the core of Underwood's persona.
The folks behind House of Cards knew they had to get the casting right to make the show work. In that respect, there's nothing bad to say. Kevin Spacey generally looks like a dad you'd see at the local PTA meeting, but when he puts on the slight Southern lilt for Underwood, he becomes a shark in a tank full of guppies. Robin Wright is his equal as a woman who puts the same amount of charm and ruthlessness into her charity organization. Kate Mara is wonderful as the scoop-hungry reporter who's out to fight the sexist system while still using it to her advantage. And that's just the biggest players; the rest of the cast is equally strong, likely lured by the strong creative team behind the camera.
There's a certain irony to remaking a twenty-year-old British series, itself based on a novel, as a"Netflix Original Series." Still, no one can deny that the folks behind House of Cards put in the hours adapting things for an American audience. The show's creator, Beau Willimon, is no stranger to political drama, having written the Oscar-nominated screenplay to The Ides of March. He does the job of fitting the British story (where Whips have significantly more power than their American counterparts) into an American context, keeping all the smarm and swagger of its main character intact. David Fincher also had a hand in that adaptation, and it's his studied, chilly visual aesthetic that rules the series. Though he handed off the directorial reins after the second episode, his visual style is all over the series, giving it a tough, contemporary edge.
This DVD set is handsomely packaged, maintaining the show's sleek visual aesthetic. Spreading the show over four discs gives these 2.00:1 anamorphic transfers plenty of room. The show skews a bit towards the blue and gray, but colors are well-saturated. Detail is generally strong, and though the show is overall a bit dark, black levels are deep and consistent. It's a slick set of transfers that make the show look good. The Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are similarly impressive. Dialogue is always clean and clear and balance between music and dialogue is spot-on. This is a dialogue-based drama, so don't expect too much from the surrounds, but they get a bit of action here and there.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are no extras on this set. This is a total shame. I can understand putting out a streaming show on DVD (some people don't have broadband or want to watch while traveling), but the lack of extras makes this show much less compelling for purchase.
As for the show itself, it's great as popcorn television, but something about it feels a bit empty. I can dig that every show isn't going to be The Wire, but House of Cards does very little to make itself more meaningful than thirteen episodes worth of entertainment. Connecting the story to something more obvious in the real world (like Newsroom) might have helped, or even having a larger point about the vacuity of American politics. Something for viewers to think about after the credits rolled would have made this a great TV series instead of a really good one.
House of Cards is everything you've heard: slick, well-acted, well-conceived television that's designed to be consumed in one long weekend. For those not subscribed to Netflix, the show is worth tracking down for the sharp dialogue and great performances. It might be guilty pleasure TV, but that's nothing to complain about.
House of Cards may be a guilty pleasure, but it's not guilty.
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