Kevin Spacey watches the throne in House Of Cards.
The deck was stacked from the get-go. When all 13 episodes arrived on Netflix in one thunderous splat last Friday, it was a bit of event not-quite-television that looked to eclipse even the Super Bowl.
On the day it landed, Andrew Leonard at Salon analyzed the $100 million Kevin Spacey-starring political drama's auspicious origins as a complex data set of user viewing habits culled by Netflix's analysts-as-producers. The picture he developed of House Of Cards is tough to shake: basically, an exactingly focus-grouped drama pre-designed to be enjoyed by Netflix users, reducible to a profitable equation: Kevin Spacey + David Fincher + Intrigue + Frontal Nudity = House Of Cards.
(When I tuned in to view it, Netflix had bothered to pre-rate House Of Cards for me, guessing that I'd give it 3 out of 4 possible stars, maybe because I've watched In The Line Of Fire and Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Margin Call. It's Recommended If You Like... Netflix, basically.)
Of course, as Leonard pointed out, Netflix's data-farming and the drama series it yielded are only a more perfected form of the demographic pandering that has given viewers "what they want" since forever. But it's too perfect. And pretty lousy.
If TV is being regarded as the new auteur medium, where show-runners like Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), Lena Dunham (Girls) and David Simon (The Wire/Treme) can develop a unique sensibility around their shows that resembles the primacy of the director as the draftsperson of a given film's meaning (this is a crude definition of cinema's auteur theory, but okay), House Of Cards cedes this sensibility to a big fat Excel spreadsheet. This is the algorithm as auteur.
First things first: based on the BBC series of the same name, House Of Cards stars Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, a calculating Democratic congressman and House majority whip. Passed over as secretary of state in the first episode, he sets about restructuring Washington to suit his own agenda. It co-stars Robin Wright as Spacey's just as conniving wife, daylighting as an environmental activist. There's also Kate Mara as an ambitious political reporter of the New Media generation ("You want to blog?! This isn't TMZ!" her boss snarls at her in the first episode, despite the show ostensibly being set in the year 2013) who gets in bed with Spacey, figuratively and then literally, who trickles confidential documents to her in a nice bit of mutual back-scratching. On paper - or as a dense set of raw data - it seems compelling enough. It isn't.
House Of Cards is crammed with allegory and visual metaphors that seem plagiarized from a literate 9th-grader's book report. Spacey's one weakness is eating sauce-slathered BBQ ribs (he's a carnivore!); a steamy hotel room affair (almost) unfolds as the Washington Monument looms conspicuously in the background (it's a dick!); characters trade in stunted clichés (including lots of actual talk about cards, Congress being a House Of Cards and all that), etc, etc. Spacey's character even addresses the camera, laying out themes and context that better TV would just immerse viewers in. It may be a bid for Shakespearean soliloquizing that speaks to the shows grander dramatic aspirations, but it feels moronically obvious, jerry-rigged for adult viewers who were weaned on the fourth-wall-breaking direct address of Saved By The Bell or Malcolm In The Middle.
There's also the problem of the program's centerpiece star. As a supporting performer, Kevin Spacey has maybe two great movies to his name (neither of which he won an Oscar for). Otherwise, his métier in the past decade has been his ability to use his pasty, compromised, bag-of-flour complexion to believably play pasty, compromised, bag-of-flour-types like political insiders (Recount), lobbyists (Casino Jack) and opaque Wall Street traders (Margin Call). Spacey is okay in all these roles, using his physical characterlessness to his advantage.
There is a general taken-for-granted sense that Spacey's presence in House Of Cards somehow elevates the material. This isn't Tim Roth slumming in Lie To Me, or some other former Hollywood B-lister sinking to the debased depths of small-screen drama on their agent's assurances that "TV is the new movies." Spacey brings with him a veneer of quality and two Academy Awards that he likely hot-glues his CV to and lobs through a casting agent's window when he's looking for work. And, really, House Of Cards is all veneer - from the steely hues of David Fincher's palette, which makes House Of Cards look very much "like a David Fincher movie" even when it doesn't feel like one, to the more troubling sense that the show is somehow "about something" because its subject is politics.
Its subject is not really politics, though. It's politicking. Like Homeland - which is a better, or at least more watchable, show because it has the strength of conviction to be galling and sensationally wrong-headed as opposed to just middling, milquetoast and Spaceyesque - House Of Cards is about the purely deceitful machinations of the political sphere. In House Of Cards, characters wheel, deal and fuck each other over in the pursuit of power qua power. Netflix's banner promotional image of Spacey seated in the Lincoln Memorial, hands bleeding for some reason (stigmata? just a Macbeth blood-on-the-hands thing?) is telling even in its obviousness: it's less about who's on the throne than about the seat of power itself.
House Of Cards invites the viewer to revel in the vacuous hustling of Capitol Hill, divorced from any real agendas. At least Homeland, as much as it ultimately waffles on the validity of its politics and on the validity of believing in politics at all (see the terrorist bogeyman Abu Nazir, who was revised in the show's second season to be motivated by vengeance and not a coherent radical program) jams stuff like aerial drone strikes and the unlawful execution of American citizens in the viewer's face.
The ethical ambiguities in House Of Cards seem to proceed from its own focus-grouped data-pooling, playing to fans of programs like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad that make a (often fun, sometimes productive) spectacle of muddying the moral waters. But it's become increasingly easy - and boring - to defer to ambiguity, complexity and those sundry shades of grey instead of casting your lot with an actual value system. This is a show where bipartisan aisle-crossing is "collusion," where characters will literally ratify their decision-making under the spectre of "politics" ("There's [sic] forces bigger than either of us at play here," Spacey tells a squirming underling in the fourth episode). For all its depiction of the apparent complexity of a political hub like Washington, House Of Cards peddles trite insights like "Yes, politicians are cunning," and "No, politicians are often not motivated by the best interests of the electorate." It breeds little but blurry apathy.
It's a problem of the delivery system, too. Marcus Wohlsen at Wired called the single-serving series a "marketing gambit," but that would suggest there's something at risk. Netflix's much-ballyhooed dumping of the show in one 13-episode plop was meant to accommodate the binge-watching that characterizes the way modern viewers have become accustomed to downing television. Netflix not only offers but seems to implicitly advocate this pattern of over-consumption. When it was sending out full TV seasons in mailers, Netflix proved a prime architect of the wolfing-down of TV shows in marathon sittings. And as Mark Lawson at the Guardian pointed out, Netflix is hoping to attract subscribers with its new banner program, many of whom will likely aim to watch the whole thing within the gratis first-month subscription.
While the seven days typically afforded between TV episodes provides sufficient opportunity for reflection on matters of characterization, motivation, plotting and all the other stuff of drama, be it by reading TV blogs or water-cooler chit-chat, the distribution model of House Of Cards seems built to put across only its semblance of quality. Gobbling it down it in its entirety, it's easy enough to swallow it as good television. The acting is fine, the Fincherian gleam of the cinematography feels worthy, and it capably juggles enough characters and their respective plot lines to feel something other than inert.
Yet like anything that's designed to be put down so voraciously (a $7 Chinese buffet, one of those oversized steaks you get a free T-shirt for finishing), devouring House Of Cards yields that rumble of remorse after the initial euphoria has retreated. It may well improve if it heads into a second season. But given that future episodes will only be further refined to be recommended directly to viewers who like House Of Cards, season one, it seems more likely that Netflix's big-budget original series will only get denser, not deeper.
For now, the show feels like it rocketed through Netflix's production and distribution arteries, picking up flecks and chunks of other, better films and TV series along the way and finally emerging half-digested. Why belabour the analogy any further? House Of Cards is crap.