David Fincher’s D.C.-set Netflix series shows promise—and artifice.
By Ben Kenigsberg|
We knew David Fincher might be hurting, what with the Oscar loss for The Social Network and the softer-than-expected grosses for his high-toned Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake. But was Netflix really the next logical step? As the red-envelope empire’s first major stab at original programming, House of Cards represents a remarkable leap forward in prestige: Headlined by Kevin Spacey (at the center of a fairly high-powered cast), the series comes packaged as the streaming juggernaut’s challenge to HBO. After expanding the bounds of digital filmmaking with Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fincher now bids to bring us into the post-television era.
Fincher is one of the most talented directors of his generation, and his knack for staging, lighting and rhythm would make his work compulsively watchable in any format. His material can be another matter. Retooled by playwright Beau Willimon from a 1989 British novel and BBC miniseries that premiered ten days before Thatcher stepped down, House of Cards traffics in the same evergreen, superficial politics-as-war insights as Willimon’s The Ides of March. Episode one opens with Spacey’s Frank Underwood smothering a dog that’s been mortally wounded in a hit-and-run. “I have no patience for useless things,” the Southern gentleman informs us in a to-viewer aside. For this Huey Long–voiced Richard III, the winter of discontent is just beginning. Turned down for Secretary of State by the incoming 45th President, Underwood sets out to play his rivals against each other.
As an instrument of his scheme, he enlists the ambitious Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara, sister of Dragon Tattoo’s Rooney), a cub reporter for the “Washington Herald.” Seemingly the lone Twitter user in the office, she may also be the only journalist of her generation discouraged from overproducing. “Move me online!” she begs her boss. “My own blog.” Despite crafting what seemed like a reasonable simulacrum of a ’70s newsroom in Zodiac, Fincher stumbles in realizing the profession’s 21st-century counterpart. Let’s hope future national-desk visits avoid anything as cringe-inducing as the scene in which Zoe’s editors marvel at a computer screen, amazed at the concept of page views (“This Web traffic’s absolutely crazy!”).
Intent on creating a surface “realism,” House of Cards doesn’t pretend the two major parties don’t exist. But more than, say, The West Wing, it registers as cagily apolitical. (Underwood is—wait for it—a 22-year Democratic congressman from South Carolina.) Netflix has ordered two 13-episode seasons, the first of which will debut all at once. Fincher directed the inaugural two installments; together, they hint at something richer, with incidental bits like Underwood wining-and-dining natural-gas lobbyists and a compelling plot thread tracing the way the pundit echo chamber wags the dog of policy. When Underwood plants a story that his rival for State is soft on Israel, the subsequent cable-news bloviating seems credibly hysterical. And behind the scenes, character actor Michael Kelly (Changeling) impresses as the congressman’s right-hand man. His quiet brand of skullduggery provides a counterbalance to Spacey’s hammy, pseudo-Shakespearean grandeur. Together, they might be a ticket worth getting behind.