My guess is that if the Netflix political drama “House of Cards” had improbably gotten the backing of a network, it would have swiftly drowned at the hand of Nielsen ratings, and that hiatus or cancellation might have set in before Frank Underwood got to offer his sermon on the nature of forgiveness in a South Carolina church. There is no pop heroine like Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope (“Scandal”) for a particular audience demographic to root for. And there is no precedent for ratings behind a plotline that doesn’t just include but hinges on the minutiae of governmental details. There may be the requisite sex and adultery and prostitution but they are for major stretches overshadowed with much grayer material: a would-be secretary of state whose nomination unravels over his reference as a college newspaper editor to “illegal occupied Israeli territories” and an impasse over performance metrics in an education bill.
So, this is a show that is destined to be read about more than it is actually watched (the number of viewing souls who know the toxic nature of testing standards for teachers unions and who get that the combination of illegal and occupied are fighting words is, thankfully, small). And then there is the inconvenience for a subscribed series depending on buzz that much of its fan base will not shout their allegiance from the rooftops, or the cultural equivalent that is Facebook: the show’s core of politically engaged people is culturally disposed to deny that it has time to watch television, much less engage in the binge viewing that a simultaneous download of the whole season invites.
But for the politically obsessed collective of Hill staffers, journalists, campaign operatives and ex politicians who have already watched, a decisive verdict: for all of the clichés it spouts about politicians, for all of the little implausible plot engines it relies on (of course, nothing so fanciful as the idea of a first lady enduring a presidential sex scandal and making her own run for president or a black state senator riding a speech to the White House in four years time) this is uncommonly good stuff, for the risks it executes and the vivid story it tells about things that are not inherently vivid.
The central figure, an oily Southern congressman named Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), is nothing new, nor are his penchants for lowball tactics and outwitting his peers by playing to their vanity or weaknesses. But the novelty is that for all 13 episodes, Underwood stays an unredeemed rogue–not the morally ambiguous striver who starts noble and turns bad, not the hero who has a dark side that he is trying to suppress, but an unmitigated, blissful damager of people. There is a deliberateness to the fact that for all of the specific policy detail that embroiders the narrative, there is never a moment when Underwood shows a flicker of interest in any of it for its own sake. And if David Fincher trusts his audience to wrestle with an array of shifting events and relationships (that would blur had these episodes been laid out over three months) he ventures even more faith in its capacity to stay absorbed in a villain whose only source of suspense is how low he will descend.
Underwood is not the only character whom the audience has to engage while being turned off by their sins. All of his intimates are caught in their own level of moral vacancy: Underwood’s wife Claire (Robin Wright), who cashes in on her husband’s status to run a not-for-profit whose agenda she will sell out without much compunction, just for the thrill of a score; the loyal chief of staff (Michael Kelley) who is Underwood’s henchman and whose only prize is a place in the orbit of a boss who keeps him at arm’s length and calls him by his last name; a young congressman, Peter Russo (Corey Stoll, brilliantly erasing the memory of a weak stint on a failed “Law and Order” remake), whose past is ridiculously compromised and whose only real interest in his career is that it seems to provide an organizing principle for his day; the young reporter (Kate Mara) who entangles herself professionally and sexually with Underwood to fuel her own career, and whose snideness and ethical carelessness make her almost as unsympathetic as Underwood. The relative paragons of decency: a young aide to Russo who tries to save him from his spiral, is still framed as a staffer covertly sleeping with her boss to climb the office ladder; another, a high level aide to Claire Underwood who acknowledges lying about the terms of her dismissal to exact revenge for her boss’s horse-trading with a lobbyist.
What producer David Fincher assumes is that a group of people wallowing in dirt and dysfunction are still watchable. Of course, he is right about that, as television routinely establishes, but Fincher’s gamble is that for most of this series, his characters’ routines are their own contained universe with no one to root for, no mystery to solve, and none of the contrived simplicity of a single narrative conflict.
In that way, “House of Cards” takes a chance that even the notably risk-taking “Homeland” doesn’t: for example, for 11 episodes of the show, there is not an obvious end in sight that Underwood’s machinations are meant to achieve (and when it materializes, it seems accidental); and for about the same stretch, most of the other characters have no endgame of their own. (Unless you fell for the unlikely scenario of Peter Russo’s continued sobriety, and Fincher squashes that rooting interest in some of the series’ few heart-wrenching moments). Imagine if “Homeland” were just a story about the torpor of a deceitful, embittered, returning POW instead of a spy saga about a sleeper terrorist. It is doubtful it would have lasted. Fincher, with great audacity, assumes a show about unappealing people climbing career ladders can work as a dramatic force and it is a large feat that he pulls it off—and doubly impressive that his material is the stereotypical vista of Washington vice, not the relatively exotic venue of mobsters in the “Sopranos” or the creative twist of everymen turned drug dealers in “Breaking Bad”.
What follows in the already planned second season of “House of Cards” may be infinitely more conventional. As we leave Underwood, he is a politician on the verge of both a dramatic triumph and catastrophic exposure: presumably, that element of cat and mouse will dominate over the more leisurely story-telling and insider angles in season 1. And in the process, the show will be tempted to morph into more standard hero v. villain melodrama. But to get to that place, Fincher had to navigate terrain that when it has been tried, usually turns either into tedium (Starz’s “Boss”), or soap opera (CBS’s steadily declining “Good Wife”) or cheap thrills (“Scandal”). His triumph is the intelligent, cleverly wrought production that is the “House of Cards.”