House of Cards: Pilot and Season One Review
This Netflix original series explores the lies, manipulation, and corruption of the United States Legislature. Or at least that’s the tagline. To me, House Of Cards is the super villain origin story of Malcolm from Malcolm in the Middle. Well, not really.
Francis (Frank) Underwood is a two eyed man trapped in a world of blind men. He sees himself as one of the few, and possibly the only, intelligent man in Congress and as far as House of Cards is concerned he is. Frank is a Congressman for South Carolina; he uses his power and knowledge of people to control the actions of everyone around him. Just like Frankie Muniz’s character Malcolm from Malcolm in the Middle, Frank Underwood enjoys occasionally breaking the fourth wall to give his own commentary and jokes to the audience. He gives us a clear view into his intentions and his reasoning, but holds of on any real specifics, just enough to make you want to see how he’s going to manipulate the world next.
The plot of the show centers around Frank and his quest for ultimate power. At the beginning that means becoming Secretary of State, but in the first half of episode one, that rug is pulled out from under him. He then swears silent revenge on the President, the president’s assistant, and the one who stole his stepping stone to the Whitehouse.
But this is a drama, and no drama can focus on just one character. The story revolves around Frank and those near him. The main cast consists of Frank (Kevin Spacey), his wife Claire (Robin Wright), a young reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), and Congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll). Each one has their own role to play in Frank’s little crusade.
As a video major, I don’t like all of the choices for House of Cards, but I can understand why they were made. Each shot is well composed and keeps your interest, sometimes with a nice dolly, zoom, and good rack focuses. The set dressing is somewhat bare and stiff, but it’s a political drama and that works for it. I also like the choice of the logo as an upside down American flag, symbolizing descent from within and/or distress.
The thing that bothers me is the lighting and the colors. It’s a touch on the dark side, no one or thing really pops out of the scenery. There’s so much dullness, just blacks, whites, grays, the occasional brown, and sometimes I swear the people look yellow. The latter aside, I know why they chose to have the show look this way, because of the content. The color scheme and lighting work with the setting and the characters. This is an adult show, it doesn’t need flashy colors. House of Cards is dark and grim, and plays in a gray area of right, wrong, and how far people will go. This is politics, plain and simple, and the colors feel realistic for the characters, the story, and the tone.
The same can be said about the music. The score consists of a few tracks of orchestral music that don’t really pop. They are subdued and forgettable, but they emphasize the emotion so well. You feel tense when there’s tension, nervous when everything hangs on the edge, and empowered when the world is your candy store.
The theme song right where it should be, setting the mood for the show. It feels big and looming by combining strong music with time lapse footage of Washington D.C. It’s just the right feeling you want to have when Frank is getting ready to take over the country.
This show is well thought out, if nothing else. The first episode puts all the pieces on the board, you have no idea what they are or what they are going to be used for, but they’re all there. It’s well paced and introduces all of the characters in ways that lets you know clearly who they are. The show maintains its feeling and message and even basic structure throughout the season. This pilot is an excellent reflection of the season and where it is going. You know the players, now you have to watch the game.
THE SEASON AS A WHOLE
As dramas go, it is a standard affair. There are lies and love and people making obviously bad decisions. I’m sad to say that it was more standard than I had expected. My thoughts when I learned of the main plot and started watching were of Frank having constant battles of wit and living chess with every person in Congress and maybe even the world. A ‘scheme-a-palooza’ if you will. But Frank’s self esteem is well placed. He knows he’s better and smarter than everyone else and there are few moments in the show to make you question that belief. One of my personal favorite moments in the whole season is when Frank makes a man apologize on national television and that person turns the apology around to make Frank look like the colossal jerk that he is. I agree Frank is smarter than everyone, but I would have loved to see him have more than one worthy adversary to make him really work for his goals. Never have I wanted to see a main character crash and burn so much.
Frank’s wife, Claire Underwood, is his perfect match. She wants power and a place in history just as much as Frank. But she does have her own goals, and isn’t afraid to walk over people to get there. Claire is in charge of the Clear Water Initiative. Getting the CWI to be as big as possible with the most possible recognition is her goal, at least for herself. She and Frank work hand in hand as almost the perfect couple to achieve greatness. However, Claire is sort of an empty character. She goes throw more than one ordeal and hard choice throughout the season, but I never really got the impression that she learned something or really grew as a person. The same could be said of Frank, but he would be insulted if you even remotely implied that he needed to. Claire isn’t just a supporting character, but not by much.
Zoe Barnes on the other hand is. She’s the one young person working in the Washington Herald. Don’t believe me, watch and just look at her outfit. Don’t tell me she doesn’t look like Hollywood’s idea of a misunderstood high school student. She even has issues with all the older people who just don’t get the computer age. But Zoe is a go getter. She wants to do real news and isn’t afraid to get her hands a little dirty to do it. Zoe and Frank’s relationship, and I mean that in every sense of the word, is predictable at best, not that it’s boring, I just knew where it was going every step of the way. I’ll let the creepy factor just sink in while you put together those two comments about her appearance and their relationship. Yep…. But she has gumption and drive and I did actually want to see her succeed, which is more than I can say for Frank and Claire.
And then there’s the last main character, my personal favorite, Peter Russo. He is a walking stereotype of a public official. He’s a drunk, an addict, into prostitutes, and is sleeping with his assistant. Why then is he my favorite? Because despite his problems, constant mistakes, and all the crap that he goes through, he’s the only one who makes a real effort to change. He does it with Frank’s “support and guidance,” but he does really try. He also cares about what people think of him. More than once Peter nearly destroys himself because he has failed the people he represents as a Congressman. And even with the human recourses problems with being in a relationship with his assistant, they do genuinely care about each other and what the other thinks. But my hopes for Peter fall into the shredder as he is just a pawn in Frank’s bid for a seat in the Whitehouse.
House of Cards doesn’t have stand alone episodes. Each one has its own plot, but they tie in heavily to the overall plot of the series, miss one and you could be completely lost. This issue however is remedied by the fact that it’s a Netflix exclusive and it was released all at once. The tone and narrative are consistent, with minor blemishes here and there, and the runtime is longer than most American shows. It’s nice to see such flexible creativity that’s not based on a book or on a cable channel I can’t afford.
For all the flack I give House of Cards, I didn’t hate it. If you like dramas about strong characters that are unapologetic about whom they are and their choices or even if you like a strong build up to see how all the puzzle pieces fit together, you will enjoy this series. I enjoy both of those things, I just like being able to really get to know and support the characters I’m following.
House of Cards is owned by Media Rights Capital, Panic Pictures, and Trigger Street Productions. It is available for streaming on Netflix.