Show Hide image

Reviewed: House of Cards on Netflix

Capitol Punishment.

House of Cards

The Daily Mail has suggested – oh, the horror! – that the decision of Netflix, the on-demand internet streaming service, to make all 13 episodes of its political drama House of Cards available at the same time is going to change the way people watch television forever. But it won’t really, will it? This is the sort of hugely expensive recruitment bait in which a media company can afford to indulge only occasionally – though it’s a risky strategy financially even as a means of bringing in new subscribers.

For one thing, the drama in question must be both lusted after from afar and superbly good close up; if Netflix were to remake, say, Last Tango in Halifax – Michael Douglas could be in the Derek Jacobi role, and Sally Field might step into Anne Reid’s shoes – I don’t suppose everyone would have their knickers in quite such a twist (I’m being facetious, but you get the picture). For another, there are always going to be skinflints like me around: I’m watching House of Cards on a month-long free trial and when it’s over I doubt very much that I’ll remain a Netflix subscriber, for all that the woman on the helpline from the US was so very helpful the other night.

As for the sickly-sounding concept of “binge television”, who honestly is going to watch more than three hours on the trot? My sense is that most people are like me: even if they had the time, a little delayed gratification is what gets them through the week.

But if I was going to binge on something, it might just be this. House of Cards is compulsively easy to watch, by which I mean it’s quite exciting without being remotely challenging. It’s slick but somewhat beige; if it were a coat, it would be an expensive camel number like the one worn by its Lady Macbeth figure, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright). For Americans, used to reverential shows such as The West Wing, it must feel quite racy: the politicians who inhabit this version of Capitol Hill are, without exception, venal, duplicitous hypocrites. But for us, House of Cards is nothing new (literally so, since the British version, adapted from Michael Dobbs’s novel by Andrew Davies, was first broadcast in 1990).

A weird flush of pride came over me when Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the baddy majority whip, first said the words made famous here by Ian Richardson (as Francis Urquhart in the BBC series): “You might very well think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.” A line so good, it has survived two decades and an Atlantic crossing.

You probably know the plot by now: congressman and kingmaker Francis Underwood, furious at being over-looked for promotion by the new president, is out to have his revenge, picking off his colleagues one by one. He has a number of willing little helpers. There is his chief of staff, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), who knows how to use even the tiniest speck of dirt. There is Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), eager cub reporter at the (sad and creaking) Washington Herald.

Best of all, there is Claire, his wife, a woman so controlling and ruthless, even her Mulberry handbag has started giving me the heebie-jeebies. (Has product placement helped to fund this series? It certainly feels that way). I could stare at Wright for hours. She is such a fantastic actor. Facing down an unacceptable tremor of guilt after she had fired most of the staff at the charity she runs, you saw it vanquished only in the flutter of her fingers.

The writing is good; really sharp and nasty. But it would all be for nothing if it weren’t for Spacey. He’s well-cast here: his venomous soliloquies and pert looks to camera (a vital feature of the British House of Cards, which the American producers have done well to keep) are delightfully camp. In the British House of Cards, rats symbolised conspiracy. Here, the imagery is all of flesh and bones. Underwood loves Claire “more than a shark loves blood”.

A southern boy, he likes a rack of BBQ ribs – or two – for breakfast. It sounds wildly over-the-top and probably is, now I think about it. But it’s fun to watch. When Spacey screws up his napkin and picks the hog fat from his teeth, it’s only for show. This is a hunger that won’t ever be satisfied – or at least, not for 13 hours or so.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on