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For all the hoo-hah about Netflix shifting the viewing paradigm from traditional television to streaming via computer or set-top box, it wouldn’t mean a thing if its content fell short. So far, Netflix has relied on buying in films and TV shows, but ‘House of Cards’ is its first self-made series. And, on the basis of the opening two episodes, it’s outstanding. Ian Richardson was always going to be a tough act to follow as the scheming politician at the heart of the original British series from the 1990s. Thankfully, Kevin Spacey is little short of impeccable in his place, bringing all his years of complex villainy to bear on Congressman Frank Underwood.
Underwood, having helped engineer the re-election of a president, is denied the role of secretary of state which he believed was his. And so – urged on by his equally Machiavellian wife Claire (Robin Wright) – begins Underwood’s revenge mission where the collateral damage looks considerable (he asphyxiates a dog in the opening scene) and the burdens of conscience don’t apply. Journalists, colleagues and, eventually, the viewers become complicit as Spacey breaks the fourth wall with all the practised ease of a former Richard III.
Washington DC, as director David Fincher depicts it, is a cold, threatening place: a viper’s nest, one step removed from the city he depicted in ‘Se7en’. It’s dense, absorbing and chilling: we’d advise against watching all 13 episodes in one sitting, however. Too much misanthropy, however seductively packaged, can’t be good for the soul.