Netflix review: House of Cards

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From the March 7, 2013 edition

Netflix’s “House of Cards” could revolutionize television. Offering the entire season streaming, it may represent the new way to watch TV. Marathon or an episode here and there? By attracting Kevin Spacey and David Fincher, it may entice other Hollywood A-listers to make the jump to television. Is a Ben Affleck, Ryan Gosling pairing next?

It’s been a few weeks since the initial 13 episodes were released. Some of you, like me, have watched them all, while others haven’t seen any yet. So I’m going to stick to the conceptual and execution aspects of “House of Cards.” Any plot discussion will be in vague generalities.

While “House of Cards” may be a game-changer in certain terms, qualitatively it feels very old hat; another conventional anti-hero narrative — “Anti-hero for Dummies,” if you will — that’s good (occasionally very good) but ultimately disappointing.

“House of Cards” follows the political maneuvering of Majority Whip Francis Underwood (Spacey) after he’s passed over for a Secretary of State position. A host of other characters — Frank’s wife Claire (Robin Wright), reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), Representative Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) and more — are affected by Frank’s scheming.

It’s an interesting premise with stellar performances by Spacey (duh!), Wright and especially Stoll. But packaged in a very rote narrative: anti-hero who’ll stop at nothing to achieve his goal. From the opening scene (Frank coldly snuffing out an injured dog) to the climax (Frank crossing that proverbial line), nothing in showrunner Beau Willimon’s story felt particularly groundbreaking.

We’ve seen this all before from the likes of Tony Soprano, Walter White, etc. and that was more powerful because we watched in horror as they devolved into monsters. Frank is pretty much abhorrent from the start, making that glimpse of his humanity in “Chapter 8” much less effective.

While Frank is problematic, other aspects are magnificent. The compelling tale of Stoll’s Peter, an impassioned, caring man with profound flaws, is outstanding, if ultimately unfulfilled. Wright’s Claire is solid, and Frank’s chief of staff Doug Stamper (an excellent Michael Kelly) is very strong. I’m also intrigued by Season 2’s setup — where maybe Frank’s arc will be less predictable.