First, the good news: “House of Cards” is a credible, premium-TV-worthy exercise, one whose impressive auspices serve notice that Netflix can indeed commission series that go beyond the typical ambitions and limitations of Web-originated fare. That said, the Kevin Spacey vehicle isn’t without some annoying tics, and feels a little late boarding the bandwagon of projects with Washington politics as a backdrop. With a single show, the service has neither established itself as a full-fledged competitor to HBO, nor embarrassed itself with an effort that might discourage future original-series campaigns. .
With a premiere starring Spacey, directed by David Fincher and written by “Farragut North’s” Beau Willimon (all among the show’s nine exec producers), “House of Cards” is adapted from a 1990 British miniseries, with Spacey playing Francis Underwood, a scheming 11-term congressman from South Carolina. Thwarted in his desire to be appointed secretary of state by the new president, he begins conniving to torpedo those around him, with help from his equally ruthless wife (Robin Wright) and an ambitious young reporter (Kate Mara) so eager to be fed information she’ll violate ethical boundaries.
Like “Veep,” HBO’s satirical half-hour, “Cards” remains somewhat coy about party affiliations for no clear reason, but Willimon exhibits a strong ear for the corrupting aspects of politics. Referring to a lobbyist throwing around money, Underwood drawls, “When the tit’s that big, everybody gets in line.”
One drawback, at least in the two episodes made available, is that Spacey frequently delivers those sneering asides directly to the camera, mirroring the earlier miniseries by breaking the fourth wall. As good as the actor is at creating such theatrical moments, it all feels a bit too precious at times here.
As with “Political Animals,” USA’s miniseries set in similar corridors, the program also does a marginal job fleshing out supporting players, or in this instance, of creating a worthy foil for Underwood. So far, Spacey has to shoulder most of the dramatic load, with the lineup of players Underwood manipulates including Corey Stoll as a womanizing, boozing congressman and Sakina Jaffrey as the president’s chief of staff. (The show does buttress its authenticity with cameos by the likes of ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and CNN’s John King, which is at least more dignified than all the NBC synergy in “1600 Penn.”)
“My job is to clean the pipes and keep the sludge moving,” Underwood explains near the outset. By contrast, “House of Cards” is tasked with expanding Netflix’s pipes into an original-programming option the TV world has to sit up and notice.
For now, to quote another politician, mission accomplished. And as in D.C., if “House of Cards” is deemed enough of a success by whatever criteria Netflix employs to keep the money flowing, you can bet everybody will get in line.