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Netflix: Making Great TV - and TV History - with 'House of Cards'
January 31, 2013  | By David Bianculli  | 5 comments

Kevin Spacey sure calls his shots well when playing a recurring character on series TV. The last time was 25 years ago, when he burst onto the scene as Mel Profitt on CBS’s Wiseguy. And now he’s back, in a show that’s a game-changer…

The series is House of Cards — and though it’s an Americanized variation of a 1990 British miniseries (a great one, starring Ian Richardson), it’s also very new, very timely, and potentially very, very important.

That’s because it isn’t presented by a broadcast network, or basic cable, or even a premium cable network such as HBO or Showtime. Instead, it’s presented on Netflix, available as a streaming offering beginning Friday. And not just the pilot, either, but all 13 episodes of the first season.

Start watching as soon as Netflix makes them available, and you can see the entire Season 1 of House of Cards before the kickoff of Sunday’s Super Bowl.

I’ve seen only the first two episodes, but they’re excellent — so good that as soon as Netflix makes additional episodes available, I’m diving right in. (Meanwhile, the original BBC version, starring Richardson, is up there, and will remain so.)

In both the original British version and the set-in-D.C. remake, the central character is the majority whip, a career politician who has no problem dealing with, and manipulating, people in the highest positions of power. And in both versions, with equal effectiveness, that sly politico — played, in this new series, by Spacey, with Robin Wright as his equally scheming spouse — peers right into the camera from time to time, whispering his true motivations and withering observations. What a great touch. And in Spacey’s hands, what a great role.

And Spacey, in turn, is in great hands himself. David Fincher, who directed him in Se7en, directs the first episodes here, and the creator of this American version is Beau Willimon, a playwright whose most impressive credits to date are his political credentials. Over the years, he’s served on the staffs of Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean and others. His savvy shows in every scene — as does Spacey’s delight with once again having a TV role as meaty and challenging as Mel Profitt.

House of Cards really is something different, in more ways than one. Media Rights Capital financed the series, assembled the creative team, and once Netflix agreed to buy rights to distribute it in America and a few other countries, had all 13 episodes written before anything was shot.

That’s not the way most TV series are made, just as being able to see all of the first-season episodes in one binge viewing burst is not the way most TV series are shown. This isn’t the first series, even on Netflix, to be presented this way — but when a show is as good as House of Cards, which is the best TV show about American politics since The West Wing, it’s almost bound to catch on.

That’s bad news for the networks, but great news for viewers. I can’t wait to watch this season’s remaining episodes — and in about 30 minutes, when Netflix rolls out Season 1 on February 1, I won’t have to.

(For my Fresh Air with Terry Gross review of House of Cards on NPR, visit the Fresh Air website.)


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John Gordon
Glad for the tipoff about this on Fresh Air, really loving it. Thanks David, you're quite the crack dealer.
Feb 9, 2013   |  Reply
You are so right. On February 2 I sat down to check it out. 6 episodes later I stopped for the day, then finished the rest Feb 3 - 13 in 2 wonderful gulps, on the edge of my seat the whole time. Kudos, too, for the music and scenes that introduce each episode. Instead of fast-forwarding thru them I literally savored them (!) each time.
Feb 4, 2013   |  Reply
Well, David B, I watched all 13 episodes and it's a corker, like 13 major studio movies one right after the other and every penny is right there up on the screen. Acting at all levels flawless, especially Robin Wright as the tightly wound Mrs Macbeth, er, sorry, Mrs Claire Underwood. As a major Kevin Spacey fan, he perpetually astonishes, the screenplay and direction gifting him with dialogue and nuance he wields with awesome aplomb. I note the Underwood deviled can logo is a grinning red devil -- are we to have sympathy for this one? As the screenplay notes, even Underwood underscores at several points that his realized ambitions may well be forgotten once he shuffles off this mortal coil. Why then the furious and unremitting ruthlessness to win a prize so quickly tarnished by obscurity ? Answers in Season 2? I'll be watching!
Feb 3, 2013   |  Reply
just finished binging on the complete series. it was a delicious analysis of power. loved every moment.
Feb 3, 2013   |  Reply
It had better be good. I was gobsmacked by the BBC original.
Feb 1, 2013   |  Reply
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