House of Cards: First Impressions

Yes, I realize I’m late to the party. But the advantage is that I’m able to judge not only the television show, but also the hype around it. Plus, there are a full 26 episodes to watch, and I’m only 2 in.

When David Fincher’s name flashed during the pilot’s opening credits, I thought, What?! David Fincher? This is going to be good. Among cinephiles, he’s well-known for his recent successes The Social Network and the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Oh, and let’s not forget the dark and visceral Fight Club back in the 1990s, or that twisted movie Se7en–in which, wouldn’t you know it, Kevin Spacey played a clever and calculating murderer. He’s also responsible for  Zodiac, based on the real-life serial killer of the same name, as well as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. All movies that I very much enjoyed, with the exception of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button–and that was largely because of the sentimental script.

Because it’s late, and because numbered lists are easy to read, here are 5 things about House of Cards that have impressed me so far:

1). It’s brooding.
I would include an image to illustrate my point, but in the process of trying to find an appropriate one, I uncovered a major plot spoiler so I’m going to have to just express myself verbally without using screen shots from the show. As I would expect from a Fincher-backed series, House of Cards is dark, melancholy, and bordering on funereal. Often, half the screen will be obscured; the color palette is mostly black, white, and gray. The lack of illumination, coupled with the drab depictions of national monuments and stately buildings, makes everything seem as though it’s taking place in shadow in the vampiric underworld of Washington D.C.

2). The characters are cruel, calculating, and complex.
By this I’m referring mostly to Frank Underwood–a dangerously intelligent and revengeful Congressman–as well as his wife, depicted by the fabulous Robin Wright, whose cruelty and regimentation seemingly know no boundaries. (Anyone recognize Wright as editor Erika Berger from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?) But these characteristics apply to more than just the top-billed actors; no one in Washington D.C. is to be trusted. I mentioned a while ago that I had to stop watching The West Wing because I got sick of its pomposity and unquestioning patriotism. While I’m not heavily involved in politics by any means, I suspect that House of Cards is a much more accurate depiction of the capital.

3). The unified, series-long plot.
There are no dangling threads here: all conversations contain a clue, and the smallest gestures and facial expressions can be used as fodder for blackmail. Characters may disappear, yes, but not accidentally, and certainly not through the inattention of a drowsy screenwriter. The strongest TV shows, in my opinion, tend follow this complex format: The Wire, whose 5 seasons are now famously known by monikers; Breaking Bad, where each season was another chapter in Walter White’s moral de-evolution; and even Game of Thrones, largely because it’s based on a series of neatly-divided books. I’m already looking forward to the implosion that’s sure to take place at the end of season one!

4). The beautiful cinematography.
You might think I covered this in point #1, but what I’m referring to here is not the lighting, but rather the placement of the camera and the mise-en-scène with which the camera interacts. We’re only about a minute into the first episode when Frank Underwood breaks the 4th wall, turning to and addressing the camera directly. It’s unsettling, and while I question its effectiveness–for whom, exactly, is Underwood narrating his actions?–it certainly does a good job of distinguishing the series. The framing of each shot feels very intentional, in such a way as to underscore the chess-like maneuvers of its subjects. I realize “intentional framing” probably sounds redundant, but House of Cards is quite reminiscent of American Psycho in that regard. The audience is more aware than usual of what is, and what isn’t, revealed in each frame, and the timing, choreography, and motion are quick, calculating, precise.

5). The score.
I had a goal to pay better attention to music in film, so how auspicious that I’ve decided to start with House of Cards! To put it simply, the score is fantastic. Quite a lot of the music sounds classical, and since I get more excited about orchestral music than any other genre, I find that the sometimes lush, sometimes enigmatic, strings greatly enhance Underwood’s delicate manipulations. Much of the time, though, the screen seems to pulsate with a deep, echoey electric cello, or an artificially low, sustained piano note. I even like the darkly majestic theme song. Hats off to composer Jeff Beal.

Cheers, Netflix, on another quality original series! (Orange is the New Black is also very, very good). I can’t wait to watch the house of cards come tumbling down.

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13 thoughts on “House of Cards: First Impressions

  1. I agree completely about The West Wing! I got so tired of the smugness and idealism of it! Although I think House of Cards might go a bit too far the other way its still gripping and Kevin Spacey is brilliant in it

    1. ha, yes, you’re probably right about House of Cards going too far in the other direction! I just watched the episode where Spacey tricked the head of the teachers’ union, and his tactics were deplorable. Still, better to be cleverly critical than unquestioningly patriotic, right? (right?)

  2. I’m not usually into series such as these but after reading your post I’m curious. I will watch it when I return stateside.

    1. Thanks Tom! Yeah, I have to go back and finish up True Detective. I stopped after the 3rd episode, I think, because I couldn’t bear the thought of having to wait a week in between each one! I’ll probably watch them all at once next weekend.

  3. Urgh! I haven’t followed any TV season for quite a long time. You have my interest pique on this. I’m a big fan of David Fincher and his cinematography style. Really shaped film industry. You also made me interested in the cruel, calculating and complex characters.

    1. I do remember her as the “Princess Bride”! She went from an innocent-looking girl to a statuesque woman. It seems like her involvement with Sean Penn kept her from taking on significant projects for a while, so I’m very happy she’s returned to the public eye.

    1. Oh good! I’m glad to hear it’s still excellent in season 2! There are too many TV shows that take a big dip in quality after the first season. I love the dark cinematography in all of Fincher’s films.

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