2:25 PM CST, February 25, 2013
It may be impossible to write a drama about politics that doesn’t come off as ham-handed, over-the-top, and laughable. This is probably because actual politics reverberate with mundane news-cycle non-events, punctuated by overseas disasters and domestic high school snippiness and gossip-mongering. Politics is too stultifying to actually dramatize for film or television.
This is probably why the Netflix original series “House of Cards,” which my roommate and I just finished watching, doesn’t even bother to be anything other than a satisfying, cliché-riddled soap opera. But wow, was it fun to watch.
Kevin Spacey plays egotistical, manipulative, sociopathic Democratic Majority Whip Frank Underwood, who schemes to—well, it’s only intermittently clear. But he’s got a ruthless political fixer/ enforcer named Stamper, an ice queen wife played by Robin Wright, and a coke-addict, alcoholic Philadelphia congressman named Peter Russo under his thumb.
(Incidentally, if you ever wondered how I would behave if I got elected to Congress, check out Pete Russo, episodes 1-3 and 11.)
Oh, he’s also got a mistress and reporter-lackey named Zoe Barnes, who goes from working at the prestigious Washington “Herald” to a new media scoop-scooping website called Slugline.com. It is here that “House of Cards” reaches its most hilarious zenith. Zoe Barnes walks into the Slugline offices where cool kids in hoodies type their stories on bean bags and the office walls are decorated with murals of closed fists. Print media is so dead, all you hep cats!
For shizzle, Slugline.
The awkwardness extends to the actual politics Frank Underwood constantly machinates over. Apparently a newly elected Democratic president is trying to pass a major education reform bill that sounds like it would have about as much chance of passing a Democratic Congress as the Ryan budget. Yet this is about the most realistic thing to happen in the “House of Cards” alternate political universe. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say there are easier ways to deal with political enemies than many of the routes Frank chooses. “The Wire” this is not.
Nevertheless, my roommate and I raced through the show because there’s something undeniably guilty-pleasure fun about watching Kevin Spacey with a droll South Carolina accent concoct ever more elaborate plans to further his ambitions. For one of the show’s hooks, Underwood often breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly to explain what he’s up to. It’s totally silly, but maybe that’s why I ended up loving the ploy.
The one surprise here is Corey Stoll, who plays Russo. The role is every Bad Congressman cliché piled high, yet Stoll brings a tenderness and sense of humor to the part that makes it the stand out performance. One of the things that writers of all stripes seem to get wrong about people with addictions is how charming and likeable those individuals can be. I think of “The Doors” movie where Oliver Stone portrays Jim Morrison as never without a bottle in hand, so you’re left only knowing the self-destructive half and not the half that drew everyone to the individual in the first place. For whatever reason, the writers and Stoll nail this aspect of Peter Russo, who comes off as the most fully realized and well-written character.
As for Netflix, it’s well known that they spent a small fortune to produce this show, but apparently it’s paying off by creating brand loyalty to their streaming service. Fine by me. I view Netflix as the greatest thing to happen to humanity since the cure for Polio. It’s also probably smart that Netflix decided to go with a glorified soap opera before they tried to reinvent the wheel. The next undertaking will be the long-awaited return of “Arrested Development,” and I’ll be shocked if I somehow don’t bury all thirteen episodes in the first 24 hours they’re available.
Is Netflix reinventing TV the way Slugline reinvented journalism? It’s possi-shizzle.
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