Thursday, February 21, 2013

House Of Cards

It's been a long while since I've loved a TV series this much. The last time was probably in late 2006 or early 2007, when I first encountered Dexter - a show so dark and twisted I fell in love with it instantly and haven't found anything else quite as worthy after 6 years.

Now, I am happy to report that a new champion has been crowned. :)

House Of Cards, an American update of the BBC series, gained widespread attention last year, no doubt because of the many famous names attached to the project. David Fincher ( director of Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network ), Kevin Spacey ( a two-time Oscar winner who's starred in Se7en, American Beauty, The Usual Suspects ) and Dana Brunetti ( producer of The Social Network and the upcoming 50 Shades Of Grey film ) caused quite a bit of media frenzy, and Netflix outbid other networks to clinch the deal for exclusive access on its online subscription service.

Fortunately for those of us who can't use Netflix - note: not because we don't want to, but because Netflix's global reach isn't extensive enough - there're other ways to get our hands on the episodes, and even though I apologize for technically poaching, if Netflix would consider adding Singapore to its list, I would gladly pay.

Anyway, thank you to whoever uploaded the files on the Internet. I, for one, greatly appreciate it!

On to the show itself. Without revealing spoilers, HOC focuses on Congressman Frank Underwood ( Spacey ), who plots and schemes through a variety of complicated situations in his quest for power. Along the way, he is aided by his wife ( Claire ) his chief of staff ( Doug Stamper ) and a rookie reporter ( Zoe Barnes ). A young politician ( Peter Russo ) unwittingly becomes a pawn in Frank's game, and a series of dramatic events culminates in a cliffhanger which will have you salivating till the season 2 premiere.

To be honest, I had no idea what to expect. My interest stemmed mainly from the fact that Kevin Spacey has been at the top of my favourite actors list for close to 20 years now, since my earliest memory of him is from Se7en (1995), in which he played vicious serial killer John Doe. As far as political dramas go, I've never found them particularly appealing, giving the likes of The West Wing, Commander-In-Chief, Scandal and Political Animals a complete miss.

Aside from featuring Spacey, however, HOC also arrives at the right time in my life. If it had been 5 or 10 years earlier, I probably would've given up after a few episodes. The cast is of a substantial size, the jargon formidable, and the pace whiplash-inducing. Blink and you're sure to miss something important. This is not a programme you can leave running while you take a piss, make some coffee or multi-task. Your full, undivided attention is demanded.

But the payoff is huge. :)

The pilot's opening scene - where Frank decides the fate of a neighbour's injured dog - sets the tone for what's to come. Most strong-willed, ambitious characters are ruthless and unscrupulous to a certain degree ( and believe me, I've met my fair share in occupational and personal capacities ), but Frank practically revels in his viciousness. Perhaps the frequent asides to the camera / viewer magnifies this attribute further. It transforms you from bystander to confidante, and everything changes.

This tactic bears some similarity to Dexter, in which the protagonist's thoughts function as narrative. But compared to Michael C. Hall's serious ( almost ominous ) delivery, Spacey's drips with unabashed glee.

That sadistic streak is significantly augmented by the numerous classic quotes, a few of which can be traced to the source - a series of novels by Michael Dobbs. I attempted a Google search for an exhaustive list, and Twitter has been surprisingly generous. No idea who's running this account, but the spiritual resemblance is downright spooky. :)

Writer Beau Willimon, who developed HOC for an American audience, is most well-known for his play, Farragut North, which eventually became a critically acclaimed film ( The Ides Of March, starring George Clooney and Ryan Gosling ).

I can't give an accurate estimate of how many original quotes he penned for HOC, but I'm guessing maybe 80%?

They form an essential part of my enjoyment ( and perhaps for millions of others as well ).

A few examples:

"I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood." ( comment about his wife, Claire )

"We'll cleave you from the herd, and watch you die in the wilderness."

"Sometimes the only way to gain your superior's respect is to defy him."

"He doesn't measure his wealth in private jets but in purchased souls."

Willimon's script is pure genius. Intelligent, insightful and challenging, yet also incredibly witty. Many of the observations made can be applied to our own lives and the people we know. But its primary targets - politicians and those close to them - are ripped to shreds. Don't tell me you don't love it, even a little bit. :)

Granted, I live in a country that is tiny compared to most developed nations. Our political system is still monopolized by a single party, and is nowhere as convoluted as the United States'. Still, the thirst for power is universal, and anyone who puts politicians on a pedestal is in serious need of therapy. I personally consider it one of the dirtiest professions in existence. Don't be fooled by the optimistic campaign slogans and feel-good propaganda. Behind the seemingly noble intentions and wholesome images lie Machiavellian plots and sex-soaked secrets. Jokes about lawyers talk about scraping the bottom of the barrel. Politics lies a few rungs below that.

Next, the superb cast, which is virtually perfect. Robin Wright's Claire is an enigma - Frank's loyal partner-in-crime but also defiantly unpredictable when it matters most.
Frank may be a master manipulator, but Claire lies beyond his charms and even outsmarts him on a few occasions. Their marriage is unconventional by political standards, and as the series reaches its climactic finale, you shudder at the thought of these two individuals succeeding in their evil deeds.

Another memorable performance comes from Corey Stoll ( Russo ). Initially a more peripheral role, it builds up steadily, culminating in an event which will shake you to the core. Spacey's sarcastic Underwood is designed to steal the spotlight, but Stoll's Russo is a gut-wrenching portrait of spiraling self-destruction, caused in large part by forces he can't control. A sacrificial lamb in Underwood's cruel scheme, his personal struggles are manipulated in the most evil ways, with devastating results. Just when you expect him to crumble and end it all, he puts up a fight that prompts a move to silence him forever.

For me, it was an unexpected twist in the tale, and utterly heart-breaking. Definitely one of television's most memorable storylines. And what a tour de force performance from Stoll, bravo!

Michael Kelly, who plays Underwood's chief of staff, Doug Stamper, is also a favourite. He looks very familiar, though his filmography doesn't strike any major chords. However, this role definitely puts him front and centre on my radar! Though a quiet character who shuns showboating, Stamper plays an integral part in Underwood's plan, and carries out orders with cold efficiency. His moments of humanity aren't entirely surprising, given the complexity of Willimon's writing, but the source of his weakness threw me off completely and added another thick layer to the conspiracy. Fantastic. :)

Which leaves spunky reporter Zoe Barnes, played by Kate Mara. I'm sure she has a lot of fans out there, but I find her extremely annoying. Was it Willimon or Mara's intention? I think it's a case of miscasting. Mara's looks are too child-like, her voice too shrill and nasal. I picture Underwood gravitating towards someone more sultry. Zoe may be young, but she's got to be intriguing enough to cast a spell over a powerful congressman. Mara simulates an orgasm quite convincingly, but the heat is clearly absent. I don't think Spacey plays any part in the chemistry equation. Just watch him in American Beauty, The Life Of David Gale and Pay It Forward - he practically scorches the screen during the seduction scenes.

Which brings me to the star of the series - Spacey himself. Long-time readers are aware of my great respect and admiration for the man and his work. Swimming With Sharks' Buddy Ackerman was his best performance for 2 decades, until HOC came along. It is the perfect role for him, and no-one else could've played it any better. He counts President Bill Clinton as a close friend, and I think that adds significantly to his confident portrayal of a high-ranking congressman. Did a recent stint as Richard III add swagger to his performance? In my opinion, yes. This isn't the first larger-than-life role he's taken on, but I've never seen him relish it so passionately before. It is a massive treat for loyal fans, and a great showcase of unparalleled talent for many newbies.

I always marvel at how lucky I am to have met him twice, and found him immensely gracious both times. He also recently cleared a stack of fan mail at The Old Vic Theatre, and sent me a batch of DVD covers I posted 3-4 years ago, all autographed with personal messages, enclosed with a separate signed photo. Thank you, sir! :)

This review isn't exhaustive, and highlights only my main impressions of the show. If I had to pick another political series which matches HOC's malicious spirit, it would be Boss, a short-lived series about a corrupted Chicago mayor ( Kelsey Grammer ) and his savvy crew of spin doctors. Boss was cancelled after 2 seasons, but HOC should enjoy a longer run with Spacey and Willimon at the helm.

I'm just glad that there's something to keep me happy when Dexter ends after season 8.

HOC scores a perfect 10! I can't wait for season 2 to start. :D