Netflix’s biggest paycheck belongs to Kevin Spacey, who oozes slimy charm as the starring character, Congressman Frank Underwood. Always riveting and deliciously despicable, Underwood routinely dispatches with his doddering colleagues, mixing clever red herrings with brute intimidation. Here and there, he’ll even speak directly to the camera with a Shakespearean disregard for the fourth wall. These intimate, scheming asides make for incredibly satisfying television. Plumbing his Richard III stage experience, Spacey knows how to strike a mesmerizing balance between charm and condescension, smiling one moment, then speaking to us slowly as though we may not be able to understand. We feel privileged that Congressman Underwood would confide in us, even as we tacitly acknowledge his intellectual superiority. He knows we’re not going anywhere, and if he wants to, he’ll make us wait.
Frank’s wife, Claire (Robin Wright, icy, brilliant) proves a worthy partner in crime, the only character every ounce Underwood’s intellectual equal. Their stiff, hawkish marriage surprises at first, but admirably, convinces by the third episode. Wisely, Cards takes time to reveal glimpses of their backstory: a choice between lovers, a life left behind. Through firm, deliberate gazes and slight, fleeting smiles, Wright displays Claire’s weathered affection for her powerful, prickly husband. These small moments say far more than mainstream television’s candlelit dinners or romantic evening romps.
As Spacey and Wright jostle for top acting honors, Corey Stoll threatens to disrupt the two-horse race. Stoll plays Peter Russo, the drug-addicted, prostitute-inclined congressman who’s still somehow nobler than the soulless politicians around him. Cards might press forward relentlessly, but Stoll’s broken, desperate performance interrupts its persistent pace, adding a critical emotional core to the series. You’ll get chills watching him fall, again and again.
Unfortunately, a series of mid-season missteps impedes Cards’ quest to match its AMC and Showtime precursors. The show’s pace, while pleasantly quick, rapidly becomes predictable, particularly in the middle of the season. Here, most scenes last about the same length (two minutes), and nearly every cut follows the same mechanic—dialogue from the next scene begins a second early, then the scene flips—giving each transition some unearned urgency. Cards may be polished, but falls well short of the shot-by-shot beauty in Mad Men or Breaking Bad.
Meanwhile, Kate Mara’s Zoe (the young-hot-and-restless, smartphone-obsessed reporter) strides in with promise, then slowly morphs into a caricature. Cards hammers away at the same notes until they break (she’s rebellious! she’s tech-savvy! she disregards authority!). I don’t fault Mara for this; she’s been boxed into a script that’s trying too hard.
Cards would do well to spend less time convincing us Zoe’s on Facebook and more time crafting Underwood’s master plan. Like watching Lost’s (initially promising) plot unravel, Frank’s big scheme becomes less believable, bit by bit, as the series goes on. The moment you stop trying to piece it together, the moment you’ll start enjoying the show again. It’s certainly a disappointment, though not egregious enough to spoil the fun.
Worst, however, among Cards’ many small faults is the sex. The series begins with a tasteful dose of the carnal act—nothing one wouldn’t expect among (congressional) friends. Soon, however, the show decides everyone should finally just sleep with everyone else. By the time I got to episode eight, even a glass of red wine, a plate of asparagus, and Steely Dan playing on the radio couldn’t get me in the mood for all the lovemaking. I understand that character X is upset, but couldn’t he do something besides go and have sex with character Y? Lazy writing.
Mercifully, Cards returns to form in its final four episodes, with a stunning turn of events, a new spin on Zoe, and far less rolling around in the capitol hay. Skilled politicians know a strong first impression and spirited finish can offset a series of mid-season gaffes. House of Cards gets my vote.