Kevin Spacey is a great actor – that is something few people would argue against. Yet we still forget that when it comes to bad guys, he’s got a real knack for it. So how about the ultimate bad guy – one who wants to rule America? There have been many shows about American politics: The West Wing, Veep, Alpha House, Political Animals and the severely under-appreciated Boss. The British have been equally prolific in fictionalizing their politics, from the funny of Yes, Minister to the horrifying House Of Cards. Horrifying? Yes. As Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, it’s “where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs,” though there is some debate what he was talking about. Let’s pretend it’s from one of his excellent political books, because he may as well have described this show.
House Of Cards made such an impression that Netflix commissioned a U.S version, with director David Fincher as an executive producer and starring Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, the main character. Underwood is a career politician and, when we meet him, Whip of the Democratic Party. He’s always in the thick of the action and hardly anything happens without him knowing. With the support of his wife Claire and Chief of Staff Doug Stamper, Frank carves his path upwards through the layers of American power. And that may as well be taken literally.
The first season is, in retrospect, rather benign. You get the sense that Frank has a bit of a Machiavellian streak. He firmly believes the end justifies the means and will go quite far to get what he wants. Just how far? That is one of the joys of House Of Cards – seeing Frank step from one dark scheme to the next. Yet for most of the first season he just seems to be a rather unpleasant guy with few principles or scruples. Then you discover that he has pretty much none of either and really places no limit to how far he’d go to take power. Lying, cheating and worse – there’s a lot to be learned from Underwood. If anything you’ll be envious of how easily he turns a lie around and talks himself out of any hole. There are moments in season 2 where you wonder if he may just be the devil. Not that there is a supernatural angle to the show – Kevin Spacey is just really good at shifting a character’s resonance and at times Frank Underwood is clearly pure evil, complete with that “how much for your soul?” glint in his eyes.
The audience goes along for this crazy ride, stuck with a moral paradox. Rooting for Underwood seems wrong – in fact, it is wrong. Yet Spacey’s performance easily lures you into his corner. The show does pull a bit of a cheat – most of the characters you encounter are written to be shallow, stupid and reactionary. They never rise to challenge Frank in the way you saw Kelsey Grammar’s fantastically dangerous Tom Kane in Boss get taken on. Had the role fallen to a lesser actor, this would be obvious. But Spacey pulls it off, though he is aided by the character’s ability to break the fourth wall and talk to the audience. A bit like the inner narrative of Dexter, these moments give a real glimpse into Frank’s dark soul and there frankly aren’t enough of them!. House Of Cards also rolls out the occasional big gun – notably the appearance of billionaire Raymond Tusk, portrayed by the brilliant Gerald McRaney.
Throughout the show you watch Underwood wheel, deal and worse as he gains power – and take a perverse pleasure at seeing him win and crush his enemies. One only hopes that this kind of thing isn’t so blatantly possible in the real world, but it is a fun ride on your television. House Of Cards has its flaws, yet by season 2 it is clear the creators of the show know how to manage and manipulate those. And even if you think it sucks, you need a good reason to not want to see Kevin Spacey chew the scenery for 26 episodes.
Season 1: 13 Episodes
Season 2: 13 Episodes
Season 3: (due Feb 2015)
Last Updated: June 17, 2014