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Web review: Netflix's 'House of Cards' a compelling drama

Published February 2, 2013 2:55 pm

Review • Kevin Spacey drama the first of original programming produced by video streaming service.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

There's a chilling moment in the opening of the enthralling Netflix drama "House of Cards" that's seemingly as much a statement about the future of television as it is about the main character's ruthlessness.

U.S. Rep. Francis Underwood, played as an icy figure by Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, sees a dog on the street after it was hit by a car. Before the pet's owner comes out to the street, Underwood bends down and strangles the dog.

What the character does to the dog is what Netflix plans to do to television networks like HBO, Showtime and AMC with a series like "House of Cards," which premieres Friday, Feb. 1.

Netflix is attempting to upset the traditional television model, and it could mark a turning point in the way we consume shows. The series premieres on Netflix's Watch Instantly service, which streams movies and television shows to your computer, mobile device or TV through a set-top box like a Roku or Apple TV.

The service costs $8 per month. If you waffled before about subscribing, "House of Cards" should push you over the fence.

The biggest departure is how Netflix will distribute the series. Instead of airing one episode each week, it will post the first season's 13 episodes all at once so fans can choose to view in a single marathon.

And this is a TV marathon that's worth your time. The series is a brilliant, engrossing political drama about one congressman's vengeance and what it takes for him to serpentine through Washington's corridors.

Based on a book by Michael Dobbs and a remake of a 1990 British series, "House of Cards" is about political machinations of the most ignoble kind. Underwood (Spacey) is the majority whip for the U.S. House, a South Carolina representative who was promised the Secretary of State job by the president-elect. But on the eve of the inauguration, the new president's chief of staff tells Underwood he will not get the Cabinet position because he's needed in Congress.

Thinking it's better to get even than just get mad, Underwood launches what will likely be a long campaign to get revenge over the new president. In the first two episodes previewed for critics, Underwood begins using a young and eager newspaper reporter (Kate Mara, "127 Hours") to leak news that will damage his rivals.

Meanwhile, Underwood's wife, Claire (Robin Wright, "Forrest Gump"), is just as ambitious and calculating. As the head of a nonprofit organization, Claire is fiercely focused and doesn't mind sacrificing other employees for her own ends.

But make no mistake — "House of Cards" is a Spacey showcase, and he devours each scene with lust and mastery, especially when his character breaks the show's "fourth wall" and occasionally talks directly to the audience.

The first two episodes, directed by co-executive producer David Fincher (director of "The Social Network" and the American remake of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"), are beautifully photographed, and the writing by playwright Beau Willimon (who wrote the screenplay for George Clooney's "The Ides of March") is sharp, biting and complex.

It's the kind of polished and intriguing series one might expect from HBO or even AMC, but you can't see "House of Cards" on a network or cable channel. It's part of a new initiative by Netflix to provide original content along with its normal catalog of existing movies and TV shows.

It's the first of four new series made for and released by Netflix this year after the company budgeted $300 million to produce original programming. In April, the horror series "Hemlock Grove" by director Eli Roth ("Cabin Fever") debuts. In May, the fourth season of the cult Fox TV series "Arrested Development" premieres, and later this year the prison comedy-drama "Orange Is the New Black" will air. In addition, Netflix has ordered a second 13-episode season of "House of Cards."

Netflix plans on debuting all of these series' new episodes in one shot. That's because subscribers have been known to watch other TV shows in Netflix's catalog in marathons instead of single-episode spurts. Without a doubt, the addicting political intrigue in "House of Cards" will entice you to click "play" episode after episode.

If the rest of Netflix's new series turn out to be as compelling and original as "House of Cards," it will be a great year for television — only these shows are coming from web companies rather than networks or cable TV.

vince@sltrib.com

Beyond Netflix: More original content

Amazon, which has its own video streaming service, also plans to produce original shows and is negotiating for the rights to produce a half-hour series based on the horror-comedy "Zombieland."