“House of Cards” is, in essence, a story about slimy people doing slimy things. It employs all the classic tropes of political drama: lying and manipulation, media scandal, rigorous journalism and a pretty hazy sense of morality.
So what makes “House of Cards” so addictive?
The simple answer is Kevin Spacey. An actor with tremendous presence, Spacey plays Francis Underwood, the main character who is an influential congressman with a hawk-like eye on promotion.
Spacey plays the role brilliantly, weaving a complex psychological web that is perplexing to the audience. We, as viewers, constantly find ourselves asking if we like his character or not. The answer is always, for better or for worse, yes. Spacey brings such undeniable charisma and cunning to this deplorable character that we find ourselves rooting for him, even as he uses questionable (and often downright evil) tactics to manipulate, coerce and threaten his way to the top.
Only an actor such as Spacey could pull off the series-leading role required in “House of Cards.” Within the opening scene of the premiere, Spacey turns and directly addresses the camera — he seizes the attention of the audience in an iron-tight grip and never lets go until the credits roll in the season finale.
We become his confidante. We begin to think that perhaps we are the only ones that know the real Frank Underwood and then we begin to think that perhaps we have been just as fooled as the rest of the characters we’ve seen him manipulate. Such is the nature of the story it demands engagement.
The supporting cast includes Robin Wright as Spacey’s successful and suspiciously impassive wife, Kate Mara, as the ruthless young journalist whom with Spacey begins a highly questionable affair with. Additionally, Corey Stoll is an ambitious congressman with a true desire to do good, but who is struggling with serious substance abuse.
So if all of the main characters are so flawed and scummy, why should we care?
Because they care. Each character has moments of softness and genuine redemption. Each is so psychologically complex that we are constantly engaged in struggle. Are they really bad people? How can we like them as much as we do? Do we want them to achieve their goals or do we want their corruption to come back to haunt them? The impressive depth to each character makes each one intriguing to the viewer.
“House of Cards” treats its audience like adults. Political vocabulary is entirely comprehensible and the show retains its realism. Any spark of idealism that we may form is quickly and viciously stamped out. We are careful with our allegiance to the characters, but not always entirely in control of it. The show is thoroughly modern with popular political satirists, such as Bill Maher, making guest appearances as well as product placement for Apple running rampant, which does admittedly become tiresome.
Despite this insignificant distraction, “House of Cards” is a success. It is spectacularly acted, and the filming and score are artistic and unique, contributing marvelously to the tone and intrigue. It is addictive. We need to know answers and we need to see our flawed heroes redeemed.
The season finale sneaks up on audiences, leaving them begging for more. Luckily, the second season is confirmed to be already in production. It will be very interesting to see how this new season follows on the heels of the first. On one hand, the writers could unravel a whole new set of complications, proving the second season to be just as successful. On the other hand, it could fall flat with nowhere to go after the first few episodes.
With such a strong initial season, thanks largely to the reliability of Spacey as an actor, “House of Cards” is highly likely to produce another dazzling and hard-hitting season. Its edginess, sexiness, sharpness and sardonic feel will leave avid viewers desperate for more.
Elise Martorano can be reached at email@example.com