‘House of Cards’ a sleazy slice of American politics

This image released by Netflix shows Kevin Spacey as U.S. Congressman Frank Underwood in a scene from the Netflix original series,
This image released by Netflix shows Kevin Spacey as U.S. Congressman Frank Underwood in a scene from the Netflix original series, "House of Cards."

Reviewer’s Rating: ★★★

Binge eating and drinking have been the hallmarks of depressed people everywhere since time immemorial, but now that online services like Netflix and Hulu are bypassing the whole, “tune in next Thursday at 7” model to deliver full seasons of shows all at once, binge TV has become a very real option.

Netflix seems to like this new model, as it offers up the entire first season of its first original series, “House of Cards,” all at once, and just like a good buffet, it can be hard to pace yourself. “House of Cards” will give you a taste of the power of shady politics and leave you hungry for more.

“House of Cards” executive producer/director David Fincher (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Social Network”) teams up with Kevin Spacey (“American Beauty,” “Horrible Bosses”) to remake a BBC miniseries of the same name. Spacey oozes quiet contempt and Southern charm as manipulative South Carolina Congressman Frank Underwood, who schemes his way to the top of the political food chain in Washington. His partners in crime include the desperate-to-be-taken-seriously Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara); his cunning wife, Claire (Robin Wright), whose charity work seems like a way to stave off the guilt that comes with colluding with Frank; and U.S. Rep. Peter Russo, whose alcoholism and tainted past give Frank complete control over him.

There are lots of ways to describe “House of Cards” to TV buffs, such as, “Damages,” but more fun and from Glen Close’s perspective, and a modern-day “Game of Thrones” in which one guy is much smarter than everyone else.”

For the layman, “House of Cards” is a slow-burning web of schemes and domino effects in a world of favors, politics and long-term goals. However, it rarely overwhelms the viewer with too much political jargon at once, and the action never strays too far from the characters, so it’s easy to follow.

“House of Cards” won’t make you an expert on politics. It’s more like a roller coaster that gives you a beer and a pack of cigarettes and tells you to sit back and enjoy as it gives a tour of the world of Washington, D.C.

The thing that makes “House of Cards” so fun is at first a little jarring. In the first moments of the pilot episode, Frank sees a dog in terminal condition from a hit-and-run and kneels down to end its pain as he looks straight into the camera and addresses the audience.

“There are two kinds of pain,” he said, “pain that makes you strong or useless pain. I have no patience for useless things. Moments like this require someone who will act, who will do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.”

Throughout the series, Frank will share his thoughts on political enemies, how to manipulate people, rowing machines, his childhood and necessary evil, and because these pseudo-Shakespearean asides often bookmark an especially nasty ploy, the audience quickly begins to feel complicit in his schemes. Frank didn’t ruin that man’s political career, we did. In an era where most Americans feel increasingly frustrated with the rat’s nest that is our political system, “House of Cards” gives us a savvy guide who can turn their game against the rats.

The casting is perfect, with each of the actors bringing a level of sympathy to characters who probably don’t deserve it. The writing is generally strong but chokes on a few predictable moments, and the dialogue works, but rarely does it sing. In a show full of schemers, many viewers will be irrevocably repelled by the self-serving and often unlikable characters. There is no white knight in this story, no high road to be taken. However, if you’re willing to check your moral code at the door and let Frank Underwood take you on a tour through the slime of Washington, “House of Cards” can be as addictive as power itself.