You might very well think the new Kevin Spacey version of "House of Cards" is better than the Ian Richardson original. I couldn't possibly comment. Except to say that, in transferring the action to the U.S., the reboot of the beloved political thriller has lost some of its exotic appeal but gained extra relevance. "House of Cards," a bold step into original programming by Netflix, debuts online on Friday. In fact, as a nod to the modern age of marathon TV viewing, all 13 episodes will be released that day.
Deeply cynical about human beings as well as politics and almost gleeful in its portrayal of limitless ambition, "House of Cards" is a wonderfully sour take on power and corruption. Spacey, with a sweet Southern accent and genteel manners, is the perfect pick to play the ruthless U.S. congressman, following Richardson's indelible performance in the original as a member of Parliament.
Spacey vacillates between chilling and charming, breaking the fourth wall to speak directly, confidentially, to the camera. Spacey plays Francis "Frank" Underwood, a brilliant manipulator with the same very intentional initials as Richardson's character, Francis Urquart, in the 1990 British miniseries. As the House Majority Whip, F.U. is a power player who keeps to the background.
"My job is to clear the pipes and keep the sludge moving," he explains. He knows everyone's secrets and motivations; he moves the pieces around the board of Washington politics with aplomb, working his way toward higher office -- possibly the Oval Office? -- while making others feel like they're making the decisions. "Give and take. Welcome to Washington," he drawls. Robin Wright ("Enlightened") is suitably cold and driven as Frank's wife, Claire. "I love that woman," he tells us. "I love her more than sharks love blood."
She'd take that as a high compliment. The role of Claire owes a debt to Lady Macbeth, with the modern-day co-conspirator urging her husband to use the rowing machine rather than the knife sharpener. But the knives are there, figuratively, at every turn. "What a martyr craves is a sword to fall on. You sharpen the blade," Frank confides to the audience. He orchestrates leaks and sets up the dominoes: Give a print reporter a hint, it will be picked up by George Stephanopoulos on the Sunday morning TV roundtable, then tip off a special-interest group as the report is on the air, and watch the fallout torpedo a federal appointment."It's too easy," he says.
Besides the terrific footage of Washington, D.C. -- both monuments and neighborhoods -- the scenery includes Stephanopoulos of ABC and CNN's John King and Donna Brazile all playing themselves. The series was shot on location in Washington and Baltimore. Director David Fincher ("The Social Network") creates a dark mood with shadowy interiors and nighttime shots.
The story takes in the usual venues, from the fictional Herald newsroom to Georgetown townhomes to inaugural festivities. The dialogue even includes a hat tip to the landmark D.C. political thriller, when Underwood arranges to meet a young Herald reporter, Zoe Barnes (played by Kate Mara), after hours by a parking garage." How very Deep Throat of you," Zoe says.
A second season is planned. Media Rights Capital, the independent studio that optioned the rights, packaged the project and offered it to various networks, is banking on viewers' new relationship with TV content by hooking up with Netflix. The idea that all 13 episodes will be available immediately for streaming is not the only thing that's new; viewers will notice the pacing is different because the writers don't feel compelled to end every episode with a cliffhanger.
Scenes pick up where they left off in the previous episode, and respect the audience's ability to sustain interest. Given the intrigue, great characters and Spacey's sublime performance, viewers won't need gimmicks to keep them coming back for more.