Search This Blog

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Series Review of Netflix's House Of Cards and The Start of The New Era Of Television

The Golden Age of Television is dead. Shows like The Sopranos and Oz and Deadwood and The Wire are long over. The two shows at the tail end of the Revolution- Mad Men and Breaking Bad- are on its last legs. Breaking Bad will finish its last season in a few months from now and Mad Men is sure to follow soon. For me, once Breaking Bad ends, the Golden Age of Television is over.

We are now in a new age of television. Previously, we had internet message boards and TV box sets to help with our television watching. Now we have blogs, On Demand, and Netflix. If we hear a show is great we can power through an entire season with the click of a finger and catch up instantly. I saw every single episode of Breaking Bad in 2012 thanks to Netflix and the internet (and AMC for airing an original season). Netflix is fully aware of how people watch television nowadays and decided to release every single episode of House Of Cards all at once. Instead of waiting for a new episode every week, viewers can watch new episodes like how they watched old ones- at their own leisure.

House of Cards is officially the start of a new revolution in television. Not only how we watch TV but in terms of the quality as well. The Golden Age of Television had things we had never seen before. It had shows that were so well plot out and so well organized that literally no stone went unturned. A friend recently asked me why my favorite TV show, Breaking Bad, is so great? I answered him because every single detail is taken care of. Creator Vince Gilligan created these entertaining characters and make sure he though about every. single. little. detail. of these characters lives before an episode aired. Scenes between two characters will last longer than they will in "normal" television because that helps tell a fuller and richer story. That's what every show, not just Breaking Bad, in the Golden Age had to offer us.

Shows in this New Era of Television still tell a rich story but sometimes it takes shortcuts that Golden Age television shows did not. This New Era of Television was led by HBO's Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, Showtime's Homeland, and FX's Justified. Shows that are excellent and are absolutely worth watching, but are a clear step down from something like it's predecessors. Netflix's House of Cards falls into this category.

House of Cards is about House Majority Whip and South Carolina Congressman Francis (Frank) Underwood (Kevin Spacey- The Usual Suspects, American Beauty). In the opening scene, a dog is hit by a car and Frank Underwood and a fellow neighbor goes out to see what's the problem. Underwood stays with the dog as the neighbor rushes away for help. Underwood looks at the dog and then looks into the camera and breaks the Fourth Wall. He says, "There are two types of pain. The pain that makes you strong or useless pain. The sort of pain that's only suffering. I have no patience for useless things. Moments like this require someone who will act. Do the unpleasant thing. The necessary thing." Frank Underwood then goes on to break the dog's neck and kills it.

This is what House of Cards is about. It is people doing unpleasant things but the necessary things. The season starts off with Frank Underwood telling us that a new President has been elected and is going to offer Underwood the position of Secretary of State. Not only is thing a great position for Underwood politically but it will also help his wife Claire, played by Robin Wright (Forrest Gump, The Princess Bride), who runs a non-profit called the Clean Water Initiative (CWI) and who is trying to clean up water internationally.

However, early on, the President's Chief of Staff and good friend of Frank tells us the Secretary State position is going to someone else and that the President would prefer it if Underwood stays as the House Majority Whip. The President feels that Underwood is more suited in Congress and to help him pass legislation there.

Frank Underwood is at a crossroad. He is in pain. Will this be useless pain or will this be pain that makes him stronger? It seems as though this is useless pain as Frank Underwood seems to runaway. He finally comes home to his wife who sends his (or lack of a better and more vulgar term) baby ass on the correct path. Frank Underwood comes back with a plan to get back at the President. He must do the unpleasant thing. The necessary thing. He must act.

The rest of the series follows Frank Underwood as he sets a plan in motion to "get back" at the President. However, Frank's plan requires a lot of moving pieces, a lot of luck, and almost a year to take effect and come into fruition. Underwood seems to have come up with a brilliant plan at the close of the Pilot episode, but as the series goes along, it seems as the chess pieces in front him magically appear to help get his ultimate plan in motion. This is the part to me that seemed sloppy. Much of the show is well thought out and meticulous but Frank Underwood's plan, the driving force of the entire series, seems to be sporadic and random. All the previous scenes seem to make sense once you see the finale episode but it doesn't feel so neat and perfect as you're watching each individual episode throughout the series. It doesn't feel as if someone like David Simon (showrunner of The Wire) or David Chase (showrunner of Mad Men) would have let that sloppiness take place. Showrunner Beau Willimon (The Ides Of March) does an amazing and incredible job, but he doesn't do a perfect one either.

Besides his wife, there are two main pawns on Frank Underwood's chessboard: junior Pennsylvania Congressman Peter Russo played by Corey Stoll (Law & Order: LA, Midnight in Paris) and a young reporter trying to make a name for herself named Zoe Barnes who is played by Kate Mara (younger sister of Oscar nominee Rooney Mara). Frank is as ruthless as they come when it comes to politics (and in real life as we saw in the beginning when he kills a dog) and he uses Claire Underwood, Peter Russo, Zoe Barnes and everyone in Washington D.C. to get what he wants (and what Frank Underwood wants isn't known to the audience until the end of the season, like a good television that it is). Frank being ruthless and manipulative is extremely entertaining to watch and makes for gripping television and is the reason the show ultimately does work. We also get to see a broader world in how his "pawns'" personal life are affected by Frank's actions.

Kevin Spacey is not in every scene as Robin Wright, Corey Stoll, and Kate Mara each get their own story line (although everything comes back to Frank Underwood). Even with this bold model, House Of Cards is still eligible for Emmys and Golden Globes as a television program and I would love to see Kevin Spacey get a nomination for Best Actor, Robin Wright a nomination for Best Actress, and Corey Stoll and Kate Mara each get a Best Supporting Actor and Actress nomination, respectively. Frank Underwood's Chief Aid Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) also does a remarkable job and I wouldn't mind it if he also got a Best Supporting Actor nomination as well, but unfortunately, because this category is always incredibly deep, I don't see it happening.

As much as the supporting players are great and as much as Frank uses other people to get what he wants, he has Sancorp lurking over him and his entire world. Sancorp is a drilling company that has an extremely powerful lobby inside The Hill. Its chief lobbyist is a former Frank Underwood aid and now attorney Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) whose own interests seem to intersect with everything Frank does and works towards. This makes for an amazing conflict so that Frank Underwood doesn't turn into big scale version of Ron Swanson- a man who gets what he wants EVERY SINGLE TIME in Government.

As great as House Of Cards is though, I feel it does get sloppy at times. Maybe "sloppy" isn't the correct word. I guess a better term would be glossing over key points and as a result the show drags at times. There were many moments between episodes 6-9 where I felt the show dragged. There were many points where I almost wished the show did not have 13 episodes to deal with. Maybe if the show had 10 episodes, or maybe if they didn't take as many detours as they did while sacrificing the main story, then the show would be better. House Of Cards as a huge cast and many different side stories they had to deal with. While most of the different side stories did come together in Episode 13, I felt that almost a little bit better story could have been told.

However, a great story did end up being told and another part of that had to do with the marriage between Frank and Claire Underwood. I loved to watch their marriage and the different dynamics of it. These two were meant for each other and I've never seen a marriage that was so twisted on screen yet felt so right. Frank and Claire do tell each other everything and they both willingly take in each other's so-called flaws but really, both will accept nothing less than success.

I did enjoy the many hours spent with Claire Underwood in her own story lines as well. Claire, like her husband, is strong willed and will do whatever she has to do to get what she wants. She comes across as a raging bitch and extremely unlikable but ultimately, again like her husband, wants something as the end goal Claire truly cares about clean water and really goes believe in a great mission and a great goal. But you wouldn't know that by the way she acts.

Claire Underwood is another great example of why we are in a new era of television. Another theme of the Golden Age was a male, middle-aged, anti-hero at the center of the show. As a result, women tended to get left by the wayside- especially the wives of the male, lead anti-hero. The audience HATES characters like Carmella Soprano, Betty Draper, and Skylar White. This is especially egregious considering these women tend to be the moral compass of the show. Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White are not nice people. Tony Soprano is the head of a mob. Don Draper is a drunk and a philanderer. Walter Walter creates Crystal Meth and is (now especially) a monster. Yet it the wives that are the characters we hate.

We are not supposed to take incredibly kindly to Claire Underwood but that is because she is intentionally unlikable. We hate Skylar White because she tries to stop her husband from cooking Crystal Meth and killing people. We hate Claire Underwood just because she is just as ruthless as her husband. We are now watching a new era where females can be just as good anti-heros as their male counterpart. We obviously have Claire Underwood, we have Ava Crowder on Justified, Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones, and the best example is Claire Danes' amazing performance as Carrie Mathison on Homeland.

Overall, House of Cards is an B+/A-. I love the show and cannot recommend it highly enough, but there are shows better. As a season whole, I thought newer seasons like Season One of Homeland or Season 3 of Boardwalk Empire were better, but the highs of House of Cards were probably better than any highs of any show I've seen since Breaking Bad came out. That's not to say the lows of House of Cards are awful, they are nowhere near that, but the season wasn't consistent like I would have liked it to be.

I absolutely am in love with Netflix's new model and I hope traditional television will come around to it. Like Netflix has said and originally thought when they created original programming, I loved the fact that I could watch an episode at any time I so chose to. As someone who doesn't have Basic Cable or On Demand, I appreciated Netlfix's model immensely. There is however a downside with not producing a weekly epsiode- not having weekly reviews by television critics. I love to hear what other people have to say, including Hitfix's Alan Sepinwall (who's amazing book The Revolution Was Televised helped form the foundation of this post), week to week but since the show wasn't weekly, there were barely any episode recaps of the show. I hope TV critics step up and adjust to Netflix's model (although it would help out if Netlfix would send along every single episode of the show in advance and not just the first two episodes to TV critics to help them as well) so I can get recaps whenever I want it and not just episodes whenever I want it.

Anyways, this is a great show and I recommend you watch it right now if you have not already. I love it and hope you love it to.

Do you enjoy Netflix's new model of television watching?


If you would like to comment on this post, please visit our facebook page