The American version of seminal British drama House of Cards hit the website Netflix this week, marking a landmark development in broadcasting, premiering a television series without it actually being on any television channels (hence the 'Sort-Of'). The first episode was available on Thursday night, and is still available to view for free, with the rest of the series following on Friday for subscribers. Needless to say, I've now watched all but two (hey, Saturday's a day off, I've had time) and the series, whilst very different from its well-spoken, Ian Richardson-starring counterpart, is nearly just as good.
With backing from some of Hollywood's major players like executive producer and director, David Fincher and other notables like Joel Schumacher, the pedigree behind House of Cards is formidable. It has been adapted from the novels by Michael Dobbs and based on Andrew Davies' series by Beau Willimon, (The Ides of March - a much underrated film, give it a look if you can). It's all very slick, without feeling over-produced but anyone looking for West Wing style idealism might be disappointed as it's a bit like someone took Aaron Sorkin and slowly punctured all his dreams until he became a hollow, bitter and twisted version of himself and then punched him in the face for good measure. This isn't the nice, do-gooding potential world of politics, but the nastiest kind that many conspiracy theorists suspect actually exists, where back-stabbings and betrayals are merely routine.
Starring Kevin Spacey as the Machiavellian Francis J. Underwood, House of Cards follows our anti-hero through the corridors of power as he conspires to take the new President of the United States. Pre-election, Underwood was supposed to take the Secretary of State role, but instead he is told that he must remain as the Majority Whip, a 'glorified plumber' as Underwood puts it. Along with his wife Claire, played with Lady Macbeth-like cool by Robin Wright, and ambitious journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), Underwood steadily manipulates everyone around him to manoeuvre himself into the position he wants.
House of Cards opens with a scene that perfectly encapsulates both the rest of the series and Underwood's character; a dog has been run over and while giving a speech directly to the audience about the two kinds of pain, Underwood puts it out of its misery. It's a shocking opener and one that you don't entirely expect, even if you are familiar with Spacey's predecessor, Francis Urquhart, from the original series. It firmly establishes the tone; this is a ruthless political world in which the weak will be put down, most probably by Underwood. It foreshadows a key plot development too much later in the series, one that is even more jawdropping.
Spacey's portrayal of Underwood is key for the entire series as it is the kind of story that lives or dies with its central character. He had big boots to fill, following Richardson in what is widely regarded to have been his best role, but Spacey does the right thing; he doesn't seek to emulate or mimic Richardson. Instead, there are a couple of subtle nods but Spacey very much goes his own way with Underwood, here transformed into a Southern gentleman rather than the Tory patrician. He's charismatic, charming, slimy and repugnant, yet you can't help go along with him. Part of this lies in the decision to keep Underwood breaking the fourth wall; the audience is complicit in every single one of his schemes or thoughts. If there's a moment in which he has to shift gear or go into the offensive, we get a quick look to the side, a momentary glance that conveys enough subtext to fuel a Harold Pinter play.
The rest of the cast are equally good, particularly Robin Wright as Claire Underwood. The marriage between the pair doesn't seem to be one of romantic love, but of mutual appreciation. Each will resort to anything to achieve their goals, including using each other to get what they want. There are little scenes between the pair, often with the two of them smoking at the window, in which the noise of politicians or lobbyists dies down and we simply get to see the two of them plan their next move. It's like watching an extremely elaborate chess game (which Underwood specialises in naturally) play out as they move pieces, knock others off and bring others back in to play. The Underwoods aren't necessarily the nicest couple, but they're certainly inherently watchable.
Like its characters, House of Cards is relentless from start to finish, building plot after plot and wrapping you up in all of Underwood's intricate scheming. Having all of the episodes available on Netflix, one after the other, also means that you can follow what is, at times, the kind of twisty-turny (technical term) narrative that needs to be seen all at once. Whether or not you choose to view it in this way is entirely up to you, but it's a very convenient way of viewing this captivating series. Just make sure you have enough time to sit down and watch all thirteen episodes at once.
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