February 3, 2014

February 14: A Day of Binge-Watching

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By SEAN DOOLITTLE

Democracy is so overrated.

Such is the motif of the critically-acclaimed Netflix original series House of Cards. When the digital media streaming giant dropped all 13 chapters of the first season at once last February, broadcast television trembled. The revolutionary new distribution model — to release an entire season’s worth of episodes at once — changed the television game. Learning a lesson that the music industry never quite picked up on, executive producers Kevin Spacey and David Fincher decided to provide their content to audiences in their preferred format at a reasonable price. This move, meant to cut down on the rampant piracy that struck music distributors in the early digital age, proved to be wildly successful for both Netflix and the show’s creators. In just the past year since Netflix began releasing original content (including Orange is the New Black, Arrested Development and Lillyhammer), the service gained over 2.3 million subscribers and commensurate praise.

Many of the most popular political dramas in recent memory — from The West Wing to 24 — provoke fanatical patriotism, depicting a utopian view of government and politics in which our nation’s elected are resolute and selfless leaders with our best interests at heart. House of Cards, based on a British miniseries of the same name, is most definitely not one of those shows. The original BBC production followed Francis Urquhart MP as he wheeled and dealed his way to absolute political power. In this adaptation Urquhart becomes Underwood, but the plotting and scheming remains. With dismal congressional and presidential approval ratings and pervasive national distrust in government, the United States that we all know is much more Frank Underwood than it is Josiah Bartlet.

Frank Underwood, played fiendishly well by Kevin Spacey, is an anti-hero emblematic of the current state of our nation, á la Walter White. A House Majority Whip from South Carolina, Underwood lends his practical brand of menace and intimidation to move along the partisan gridlock that halts the political process. When the president-elect overlooks Frank for a compensatory position in the new administration, the spurned congressman vows to undo the entire organization, leaving only destruction in his wake. Spacey is at his career best as the diabolical representative, taking wicked delight in his own machinations and reveling in his own magnificence. As off-putting as his narcissism is, it is impossible to not respect his efficiency, intelligence and never-ending well of zingers and put-downs.

One of the show’s hallmarks is the frequent breaking of the fourth wall by Underwood, who often addresses the audience via Shakespearean aside, revealing his inner monologue as he interacts with Washington’s other inhabitants. The ease and speed by which Spacey makes his aside transitions between faux-geniality and unbridled malice is impressive and often hilarious to watch. The gimmick may seem unnecessary at first, but it becomes an essential aspect of the show, granting the audience insight into one of the most repulsive men on television.

While the show devotes most of its time to Underwood and his dealings, it would be an absolute travesty to ignore the supporting cast of allies, enemies and underlings that Frank deals with in each episode. Claire Underwood, the congressman’s philanthropic wife and partner-in-crime, is easily one of the most multi-faceted, complex characters in the recent fiction. Robin Wright, was recently awarded the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV Drama for her performance as Claire in House of Cards, beating out other impressive competitors like Kerry Washington and Taylor Schilling. Wright is perfectly cast as Frank’s Lady Macbeth, simultaneously emasculating and empowering the congressman. The dastardly couple seems to be a perfect match. Frank says of his wife, “I love her more than sharks love blood,” proving that even declarations of affection can unsettle.

How appropriate it is, then, that the show will return for its second season next week on Valentine’s Day. Perhaps Frank and Claire’s atypical relationship will inspire some romantic rendezvous. I, for one, will be spending that Friday in bed, indulging in the best revenge, manipulation and murder Netflix has to offer. I hope you can find the time to do the same. (Approximate binge-time: 676 minutes.)

House of Cards returns for its second season Feb. 14, when it will be available in its entirety for streaming, along with its freshman season.

Watch the chilling Season Two trailer here:

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