House of Cards: Netflix Original Series challenges HBO, Showtime

Nathan Lawrence

Allow me to make a terrible Netflix-related confession: I’m not above binging on television shows. I went through the entire run of “Desperate Housewives” in a month, all of “Futurama” available on the service twice, and-most recently-I have gone through Netflix’s latest original series, “House of Cards,” in significantly less than a week.

Based on a British series of the same name which was in turn based on a novel by British writer Michael Dobbs, “House of Cards” centers around Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of House Majority Whip Francis Underwood, who-after being denied a position in the new president elect’s cabinet-schemes his way to increased political power, all the while revealing his plans in monologue-soliloquy?-to the camera.

Perhaps the single most impressive thing about the series is Spacey’s incredibly layered and interesting portrayal of Underwood. Frequently during the series, I had to remind myself that this was in fact the man who played Verbal Kint in “The Usual Suspects” or Bobby Darin in “Beyond the Sea.” There wasn’t a hint of any of his prior characters or his own persona present in Francis Underwood, and that kind of self-removal is an incredibly difficult and impressive feat rarely seen in something as intimate as television or film acting.

Though I keep treating this as yet another television show or movie, it’s important to note that “House of Cards” is neither.  From the beginning, Netflix worked with rising production house Media Rights Capital (“Ted,” “The Adjustment Bureau”) to create a series designed especially for the medium of internet streaming. This isn’t Netflix’s first outing into original content-last year’s Norwegian comedy “Lillyhammer” fills that role-but it certainly is their most bold, as it directly combats drama from the likes of HBO, Showtime, and even AMC.

Netflix and Media Rights Capital even brought in big name directors like David Fincher (“Fight Club”), Joel Schumacher (“The Phantom of the Opera,” “Batman Forever”) and Dave Foley (“Glengarry Glen Ross,”  “Fear”) to helm episodes, as well as long-time television veterans Charles McDougall (“The Office,” “The Good Wife”) and Carl Franklin (“The Pacific”).

This group worked together to try and come up with a cohesive vision for the series, but specific signatures of each director’s style definitely remain intact. Specifically, Fincher’s episodes retain his signature camera movement and placement, creating shots that might puzzle even the most experienced cinematographers, while Schumacher leans significantly on his somewhat unique mid-shot looks, which put characters on the periphery of the screen, well beyond the typical off-center composition.

“House of Cards” is also missing another hallmark of the typical network television show: the commercial break cliff-hanger. Each episode still remains clearly structured into acts, the typical twist and fade-out in between them is replaced with continuous action. This creates a much more cinematic flow that seems to create more effective storytelling in general.

All this said, “House of Cards” still isn’t perfect. While some of the sub-plots jet on, creating a fantastic sense of intensity and pacing and increasing the general stakes of the series, others feel like they drag the general motion of the plot to a screeching halt every time they appear on screen.

As the series continues, it also begins to feel less inspired and energetic, thought the final culmination of events is not to be missed. That said, for the $7.99 a month you pay for Netflix, getting a high-quality, original show on par with some of the recent entries from HBO and Showtime (which frequently cost nearly double that price) seems like a real bargain, and certainly a worthwhile addition to any Netflix queue.