Netflix is having a moment. On January 23, the home entertainment platform proudly announced an 8 percent increase in revenue in the last quarter of 2012.
By Noah Gittell
Netflix is having a moment. On January 23, the home entertainment platform proudly announced an 8 percent increase in revenue in the last quarter of 2012. The next day, the company’s stock soared by 43 percent, the largest single-day gain since the company went public more then a decade ago. There was lots of good press for the company, and it marked a distinct change in fortunes. This time last year, the company’s eulogy was already being written, after they initiated a big hike in membership fees and separated DVD rentals from their streaming service.
Last month, Netflix released its second and highest profile original series yet, “House of Cards,” and debuted all 13 original episodes at once. Like the platform itself, the show combines the best of television and film. It features big-time Hollywood players — director David Fincher and star Kevin Spacey — but its form is made for television. The series, based on a successful British version, is filled with compelling characters that would not get their due in a two-hour movie. “House of Cards” gets to take its time exploring its seedy setting and cast of flawed, often tragic characters – and each actor makes the most of their turn to shine.
The series follows the scheming machinations of Congressman Frank Underwood (Spacey), the Majority Whip of the U.S. House of Representatives as he seeks revenge on a White House that passed him over for Secretary of State. Its assumption of our interest in its story relies on the notion that viewers want to see all of the back room intrigue of the political process, an inglorious system that has been described by Washington insiders as akin to seeing “how the sausage is made.”
At a time when Congress’s approval rating is historically low, “House of Cards” could have been just a sad and bitter reminder of the ways our government fails us. It depicts Washington as something even lower than a sewer, a city filled with primitive, mutated creatures that exist to satisfy only their basic urges – sex, money, and power. But it’s brilliant television noir – the morality is cynical, and the characters converse in the shadows. The men are philanderers and addicts, the women prostitutes and gold diggers. Spacey’s face, now droopy with middle age, seems to hide his skeletons in its folds.
But the enthusiastic cast redeems the show’s easy cynicism. For Spacey, the role is right in his wheelhouse. Ever since his career-changing role in “The Usual Suspects,” he has excelled at playing characters who lie to us but do it with so much vigor and originality that we can’t help but like them anyway. Underwood is a little less likeable than most, and by the end of the series, he has seriously challenged our sympathies. A key episode, in which he revisits his alma mater and catches up with old college friends, gives us the glimpse into his heart that makes us want to stay with him.
Otherwise, Underwood slithers through the Washington scene, bent on destroying a new presidential administration (of his own party) by planting stories with Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a young, ambitious blogger. He manipulates his colleagues and plays coy with the Chief of Staff – all without breaking a sweat. His wife (Robin Wright) runs her environmental non-profit organization with cold precision. The most sympathetic character is Congressman Peter Russo, a young, once-idealistic politician and single-father, who is struggling with alcoholism during his latest campaign.
Despite its setting, “House of Cards” is not a serious show. It has little to tell us about corruption in Washington that films haven’t covered before, probably going back as far as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” But that film gave us an innocent to root for. “Cards” offers nothing of the sort, and in doing so, it implicates the viewer in the corruption on screen that feels only a step or two removed from real life. It speaks to how drastically our esteem of Washington has fallen that a show without heroes can be made out of it. If it leaves you with a sour taste in your mouth, well, maybe it’s meant to.
All 13 episodes of “House of Cards” are available to stream or rent on Netflix. The original British version is also available.