Swimming with sharks on House of Cards
I’ve always been fascinated by Kevin Spacey. This is an actor with less genetic charisma than any other leading man I can name—he’s neither handsome enough for conventional star parts or physically distinctive enough to be a striking supporting player—but his intelligence and craft have resulted in some of the most indelible performances of the latter half of the nineties, and beyond. I don’t think any other living actor can claim a run as good as Seven, The Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential, and American Beauty, not to mention Beyond the Sea, which I’m convinced is one of the great bad movies of all time, deserving, as David Thomson has noted, of an award given annually in its name. There’s a preening, endearing vanity behind Spacey’s nondescript looks that emerges whenever he’s asked to sing, which he does very well, or do one of his uncanny impersonations. He’s a showoff trapped in an everyman’s body, and although I don’t think he’s ever given a truly uncalculated or uninhibited performance, he’s also provided me with more pleasure as a moviegoer over the years than most actors with more conventional endowments.
And he’s the perfect lead for House of Cards, the weirdly compelling political drama that premiered over the weekend on Netflix. Spacey always seems to be in a kind of conspiratorial huddle with the audience, even if he’s only conning us in the end, and as the scheming majority whip Frank Underwood, he isn’t above giving the lens itself a wink, and occasionally an extended monologue to comment on the action. If the show were more realistically plotted, this would be distracting, but a realistic look at power politics isn’t quite what this series has in mind. Underwood is a master manipulator, but everyone around him is so gullible, including the supposed Washington operators with whom he interacts, that it’s as if he’s read the script notes for the next thirteen episodes. The fetching Kate Mara does what she can in the role of an ambitious metro reporter, but her rapid rise, once Underwood starts feeding her information, is more Brenda Starr than Bob Woodward. It should play worse than it does, but if there’s anyone who can carry this sort of thing, it’s Spacey, who clearly relishes the chance to have the camera to himself, and knows how to sell arch lines like “I love her like sharks love blood.”
And I kind of love it, too. House of Cards is remarkably unsubtle in its writing, but benefits from considerable subtlety in its art direction, photography, and sound design. Every frame glows with the burnished yet chilly digital look that David Fincher, who directed the first two episodes, has long since perfected, and the compositions are both clinical and playful: instead of the long tracking shots of The West Wing, we’re treated to a vision of power as one glossy tableau after another. The sets and locations are lovingly detailed—even if my wife observed that no real newsroom kitchen has that much free bread—and we’re given plenty of time to drink them in, with a pace that some viewers have criticized as being too slow, but which suits the balance and polish of the images on the screen. The result is a television series that looks and feels more like a movie than any I’ve ever seen, and its elegance goes a long way toward addressing its narrative shortcomings. (It’s also presented in an unusual aspect ratio, slightly narrower than the standard 16:9 size, which I suspect represents a compromise between the anamorphic format that Fincher prefers and the demands of a show destined to be viewed primarily on widescreen televisions.)
And for all the hype over the fact that the series is being released in one big chunk, rather than parceled out in weekly installments, I have a hunch that its real influence will be in its look and tone, rather than its delivery system. I’ve only seen the first two episodes, and although I intend to watch the rest soon, it doesn’t strike me as the kind of densely plotted show that demands to be devoured in a few epic viewing sessions: all the conventions of serialized storytelling are here, but mostly for the sake of appearances. I’ve written before about the challenges of constructing shapely long-form narratives in television, in which a show can be canceled after two episodes or run for years, and although the Netflix model presents one possible solution to the problem, my initial impression is that it leads to a sort of complacency: subplots are introduced without any particular urgency, with the implication of a payoff somewhere down the line, where a series produced under greater ratings pressure might feel more of a need to justify itself moment to moment. House of Cards is secure, even occasionally a little smug, in the fact of its own survival. I’m enjoying it tremendously, but I can’t help but feel that it might have been a stronger show, if less lovingly crafted, if, to borrow the title from another Kevin Spacey movie, it had been forced to swim with the sharks.