Jet-black water cascades in small waves over itself in the middle of the night. The moon, like a floating pearl, glistens off it as if the ocean were a mirror reflecting the uninterrupted beauty. From out of nowhere, leathery gray triangles begin appearing above the surface. Then, like moths to the flame, more and more begin appearing just as the first. Blood is in the water and nothing gets a hungry shark salivating like the promise of its beloved, sweet red nectar.
Congressman Francis Underwood is all too familiar with this scenario, but not because he enjoys scuba diving on weekends. This scene, Underwood has become accustomed to, is the setting for Netflix’s original series, House of Cards, but I mean that figuratively, not literally. The world of politics is perhaps the most complex battlefield of them all, yet nobody is as determined, manipulative or ruthless in getting what he wants than Underwood, and what he wants is revenge.
The basis for Netflix’s ingenious political drama series stems from a series of British novels by Michael Dobbs and mini-episodes revolving around the government and what goes on beyond the closed (and heavily guarded) doors of the White House. Kevin Spacey stars as Francis Underwood, a Majority House Whip who is passed over by the President for selection of Secretary of State. In an attempt to gain some sort of progress from the situation, Underwood rallies his wife Claire, Chief of Staff Doug Stamper, and a wide range of “friends” to move past his current position and advance from Whip to Vice President, and possibly even the Oval Office. The reason I say “friends” is because what everyone involved soon finds out is, you really don’t have any.
I need to start out by saying you won’t find many shows like this. If you have a Netflix account, or even if you don’t, there’s no excuse for not treating yourself. There are two seasons currently online – the second just dropped Valentine’s Day – and they are both high-octane thrillers that will turn any one-episode-a-nighter into a binge-watching fanatic. One of my friends originally tried getting me to watch it when the first season was brand new and the governmental aspect immediately turned me off. I told him I wanted a show I could enjoy and not have to strain to understand the political mumbo jumbo, but he retorted by informing me it’s not just politics. Thanks to that, I’m enjoying one of the most addicting shows offered. Average people become involved, journalists are a key factor, and the insanely high level of tension never leaves.
There are two main contributions to the fact that I’m just two episodes away from finishing the second season: the cast and the production. Starting with the cast, it’s down right next to impossible to beat, and ranks at the very top with Lost and Breaking Bad. Kevin Spacey is to Francis Underwood as Bryan Cranston is to Walter White – iconic. Born in the deep South, Underwood is the potent definition of killer class. Spacey perfected the ability to have a slightly southern accent undertone the well-spoken, educated side of his character. With his voice making up just half the monster he is, mentality is the other. Spacey also does an unbelievable job selling just how desperately powerful Underwood desires to be. Constantly conniving, he can transition from delicately persuading someone to swing a vote the way he wants to intimidating opposition that think they can back him into a corner and kick him while he’s down.
The camera doesn’t solely follow Underwood, so it would be unfair not to give a massive amount of credit to every actor that plays even a supporting role. Sure, his wife Claire is just as conniving and is played almost like a mob boss’ wife by Robin Wright, but everyone down to Nathan Darrow, who plays the Underwood’s bodyguard Edward Meechum, is dynamic in their own way and unlike most shows, holds weight in the outcome of many crises.
Also, golf clap for Beau Willimon, who wrote the script and assisted in developing the American version of the show. The dialogue is astoundingly well-worded, yet not overbearing to a casual audience. It sticks to simplicity that allows for an easy-to-follow plotline, while keeping the classy, professional content seeing as these are politicians.
The production done for House of Cards is well-beyond phenomenal. The music, camerawork and transitions are movie quality, and the consistency is addicting. Jeff Beal is the composer for the show and not an episode goes by that I don’t find myself falling in love with how perfect the concept goes with the sounds. Much of the ensemble is dominated by piano and violin, but also includes horns and percussion. Sticking with the government theme, each piece is Americanized in some way. Trumpets propel the title theme with triumphant melodies while pianos roll at fast tempos carried by the crisp darkness of violins. The tunes are all very patriotic sounding in some way, but what ties it to the show so well is the often dark, tense underlying sound that clearly represents Underwood and his objectives.
The transitions are complimented nicely by the music, which not only contributes thematically, but assists in transporting the audience scene to scene seamlessly. If there are a chain of events taking place as the effect of something Underwood or someone else causes, the music will keep its tempo and sound as the different effects play out for different characters, creating constant tension on the “house of cards” that is regularly at risk of collapsing.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my television interests. I refused to watch Lost when it was running live because I thought it looked corny, and it took me a few seasons to catch on to Breaking Bad because the first couple of episodes were slow, but this is a gold mine. I can easily pit it against every other original series Netflix has produced and they would fall short before the comparison was even looked at.
Let me leave you with this: House of Cards is the first (and currently only) Netflix original to win an Emmy, to which they won three for outstanding cast, directing and cinematography. Wright has also won a Golden Globe, Spacey has been nominated, and the show as a whole is knocking on the door for best TV series. Production has started for season three as Willimon is already hard at work on the 800-page script. Netflix must finally be willing to let their shows play dirty, because this deck is stacked.
9/10 (based on the current two seasons)