It’s not often you can say a television series is ground-breaking almost as soon as it’s been released and be right. However, I’m fairly confident Netflix’s House of Cards matches that description and will be written about in years to come as the moment something changed in the television industry.
In some ways the lack of fuss about its well-deserved Emmy nominations highlights this. No one has seriously questioned its right to be there despite never having a timeslot on an American tv channel.
House of Cards is an american remake of a british television series. Attempts to remake british series have been notoriously unsuccessful in the past apart from the notable exception of The Office. However with big names both in front of the camera (Kevin Spacey) and behind it (David Fincher), House of Cards it looked like the series was in pretty safe hands.
The series focusses on Francis (or Frank) Underwood and his attempts to gain power in Washington D.C. At the start of the series we see Underwood, currently the House Majority Whip, passed over the role of Secretary of State, despite previous assurances from the newly elected President the job was his.
The series sees him plotting and using underhand tactics to ensure he can get as much power as possible as soon as possible. He is assisted by his equally ambitious wife, Claire (Robin Wright), as well as an up-and-coming journalist at the Washington Post, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). Zoe and Frank soon forming an alliance based around their mutual need to have as much sway as possible within their chosen fields.
Like in the original UK series, Underwood will break the fourth wall from time to time and address the audience. Normally these will be darkly humorous takes on the current situation as he tells us how he is ‘playing’ his current opponent to get his own way.
Much of the fun of the series comes as we see Underwood convincing people they have got their own way while we know the opposite has happened. Even though we know what Underwood doing is despicable because he’s so good at it we can’t help but sit back and admire.
The series of course takes a very cynical look at politics. It is the antithesis of The West Wing for example. We see corporations, charities, unions and the press all competing for a place at the table. The most successful are those with the most determination and the flimsiest conscience.
One criticism of the series might be the lack of character development for Frank and Claire. The only real ‘development’ we get is in the audience’s perceptions of them as we find out a little bit more about their past and how they ended up together.
Zoe Barnes fares a little better although it make take another season for her character arc to become more clear cut. The notable exception to all this is Rep. Peter Russo (Corey Stoll). At the start of the series, Russo is an alcoholic who Underwood bales out to avoid a scandal (and guarantee his loyalty).
When we first meet Russo he is a mess. However, as the series develops we see the qualities he has that he has used to get himself elected. In many ways he represents the less cynical side of the series, which shows how ordinary people like Russo have come into politics to make a genuine difference to the people of his district.
One of the struggles within the series is between the (mostly young) idealists like Barnes’ colleagues, Claire’s assistant, and Russo himself. If there is to be any hope found in the series, it is through these younger characters. They still try and hold on to their idealism in the face of an older generation who have become so pragmatic it is no longer clear who they are fighting for.
The first series is a success in that it combines smart writing and great acting with a genuinely gripping plot. It reminded me a lot of Breaking Bad, not only in its central character (Frank Underwood is who Walt could become by the end time Breaking Bad finishes), but also in its power plays. The shifts in balances of power, alongside the apparent surety that everything is about to come tumbling down, provide much of the narrative flow in both series.
House of Cards then is a historic series for so many reasons. I think in as little as three years time it will feel weird that the idea of watching original series via Netflix (or equivalent) is so new. Must-see “television”! (or whatever it is we now need to call it…)