In The West Wing, Martin Sheen’s idealised presidency was born out of liberal frustration as lame duck Bill Clinton gave way to the Bush administration. Democrats were able to escape their worst nightmare come true in Aaron Sorkin’s world of the uncorrupted, Nobel Prize-winning President they never had. The timing made the show one of the most successful ever.
But, after seven seasons, the followers of Josiah Bartlett transferred their hopes to President-Elect Jimmy Santos, who rode off into the sunset with the real-life Dubya not far behind, and we were left to wonder: How would TV respond to the election of a real-life Nobel Prize-winning messiah? What would happen when he failed to live up to the West Wing dream?
Frank Underwood is what happened.
In a horrific reflection of the despairing times we live in, House of Cards has revived Francis Urquhart, an MP born of the decline and fall of Thatcherism two decades ago (on the BBC, no less). Now on the other side of the pond and passed over for a promotion, Congressman Underwood puts into motion a plan for retribution. His plan escalates with each episode to avenge every minor slight and reward every backhand he receives; he barely breaks a sweat in dispatching with his enemies and controlling his pawns; he’s blasé about breaking every legal and moral code that crosses his path to stay one step ahead.
Let’s put it like this. Jed Bartlett once rang the Pope to deliberate over pardoning someone on death row. Frank Underwood would have laughed in his face and shot the guy himself.
As always, this is a tour de force by Spacey. He’s almost flawless. However, he is outshone – marginally – in every episode by Robin Wright, playing his equally ruthless wife Clare. It’s bizarre to see such a heartless businesswoman ruling over a charity that’s trying to provide Africa with clean water, but on reflection it’s better than having her rule the world (which you completely believe she could). And frankly, if Clare Underwood is in charge for much longer, all of Africa will be drinking Evian before the year is out.
There is a beautiful strangeness to Clare and Frank, and their scenes together are the show’s highlight. Their relationship is manipulative and unconventional, but their love and, more importantly, their mutual respect for one another, is completely believable, as is their motivation to work for the greater good.
The calculating couple are supported by solid performances all round. Kate Mara is initially jarring as an ambitious rookie journalist, but quickly settles in to it and even becomes quite the match for Frank. Corey Stall’s alcoholic Congressman Peter Russo and Constance Zimmer’s veteran reporter are also fantastic. It’s worth sticking with the first couple of episodes – what seems like a rapid introduction of new cast members quickly levels off, and seemingly pointless side plots quickly find their way into the main narrative.
If House of Cards had been a bad show, or even mediocre, it would have been a disaster for Netflix. They wouldn’t have been taken seriously as an original content developer and the unconventional release would probably be labelled a failure. As it is, House of Cards is an incredible advert for Netflix – it is well written, acted, and executed, and easily stands up against programming from traditional networks, such as HBO. The release of the whole series at once was a great idea for today’s boxset-obsessed audience, and saved us all from the creeping disinterest that committing to months or years of watching a show week by week. There is very little to criticise; it perhaps leans towards the grandiose at times, and verges once or twice on jumping the shark, but Spacey always keeps it in check. He doesn’t just swim with sharks. He is one.