By Scott Jacobs

I usually shy away from reviewing political dramas on TV, but the recent series House of Cards –– now available exclusively on Netflix –– is so good it has the potential to change politics and TV, and that’s worth a comment or two.

The 13-part series that Netflix rolled out February 1 is the opening salvo in a battle for control of the new streaming media frontier. There are a number of players already on the field –– YouTube, Vimeo, Hulu and Xfinity quickly come to mind –– but the battle royal appears to be shaping up between Netflix and Amazon for the high ground that counts: streaming media that comes with a price. In Netflix’s case, that’s $8 a month; in Amazon’s, it is $79 a year. Small potatoes until you start adding up the entertainment fees you already pay for cable, premium cable, DVR recorders, smart phones and iPad apps. Is it worth it?

Changing TV Habits

Netflix and Amazon are betting it is, but only if they can bring something new and innovative to the table, something you can’t get on broadcast or cable TV. To that end, House of Cards is the first of four exclusive series Netflix is bringing out this year. Meanwhile, Amazon Studios is readying its own slate of exclusive fare for release this fall––and spending a reported $500 million to develop it. The emerging rivalry is reminiscent of the early days of HBO and Showtime, and the battle cry is the same. As Roy Price, head of Amazon Studios told the New York Times, “All that matters is being great. There’s no great benefit in being good; people don’t change their habits for good.”

The rollout of House of Cards is an apt example of how streaming media can change television viewing habits. Although it is not available on broadcast or cable, Netflix’s 27 million subscribers can watch it on their television sets, computers, game consoles, iphones, iPads and other devices equipped with the Netflix app. They can start watching on one device, hit pause, pick up the thread while driving in the car, pause again, then watch the end on an iPad at the office.

The 13 hours of House of Cards were also released simultaneously (no waiting for next week’s episode) so viewers can, as I did, watch the entire season over a weekend, an exercise that left me convinced House of Cards is a brilliant piece of television.

A Mirror on Washington

The series is based on a 22-year-old British drama (and the 1989 novel by Michael Dobbs) about a House Majority Leader in parliament who connives his way to power using the dark arts of statecraft. But the Netflix version set in today’s Washington is anything but an Americanized Downton Abbey. It’s a spot on, complex commentary on the intertwined threads of government, media, business and social values that have come together to produce the current political environment in Washington––and it is a very dark picture indeed.

House of Cards is The West Wing without all the preaching. In the opening episode, House Majority Leader Frank Underwood––played with devilish cunning by Kevin Spacey––is spurned in his bid to become Secretary of State despite his loyal support for the president. With years of Congressional wheeling and dealing under his belt, he sets about showing the president the error of his ways. Simultaneously, he demonstrates his value by maneuvering the White House’s education bill through Congress and his cunning by judiciously leaking a story that sabotages the President’s nominee.

As the series goes on, the web Underwood casts expands and the gaps are filled in with other intrigues on Capitol Hill and off. An issue that dominate one news cycle come to a fitting end (though not necessarily a good one), but there is always another crisis to take its place. As soon as Underwood irons out one wrinkle in his, another emerges to trip him up. Soon enough we become aware (often through Spacey’s cogent asides to the camera) that he has no plan, only a sure-footed grasp of the political landscape and supreme confidence that he can find his way through it to accumulate ever more political capital.

A Top Drawer Production

The series comes with a top drawer cast: Besides Spacey, there is Robin Wright as his power driven wife and executive director of a clean water foundation (can anyone here say Bob and Elizabeth Dole?); Kate Mara as upcoming Washington Herald reporter Zoe Barnes; Corey Stoll as the troubled Congressman Peter Russo; and so many more sharply-drawn characters, large and small, that House of Cards blows through any simple notion it is a portrait of Capitol Hill politics to become a rich tapestry of Washington lifestyles, illuminating the details Congressional hearings and K Street power plays, but also shining a light on the city’s less heralded precincts like Freddy’s rib shack, or Zoe’s dive apartment, and the politics of hotel galas.

The end of The West Wing in 2006 left a dearth of intelligent Washington dramas on television. It was as if no one wanted to broach the subject at the end of the Bush presidency and the environment was too poisonous under Obama to attract the TV networks. In 2011, however, George Clooney produced and directed a small film called Ides of March that followed an idealistic young staffer for a presidential candidate as he learned the dark art of dirty politics.

Ides of March was based on a play by Beau Willimon, now chief writer and show runner of House of Cards, and the staffer in question (played by Ryan Gosling) was modeled on Jay Carson, a former oppositional research consultant to President Clinton, who met Willimon on the set and serves as the political consultant to the series. Together, they have crafted a picture of Washington loaded with insider details, and jokes. A White House bill signing opens with a staffer affixing masking tape labels to the Oval Office carpet to show dignitaries where to stand behind the President’s desk (and the Vice President moves his). The editor of The Washington Herald is fired after Zoe tweets her dismissal from his office. She goes on to work for the new Internet start-up Slugline (“You know Politico? This is Politico six months before you heard of it.”) and she complains that half the reporters file their stories on their iPhones.

The Dark Side of Washington

The plot twists are made all the more dramatic by the noir sensibilities of Executive Producer David Fincher, who directed the first two episodes and brought on veteran directors Joel Schumacher, Charles McDougall and Carl Franklin to handle others.

In its conception and execution, House of Cards adheres to the highest narrative and cinematic standards. Stephen Spielberg’s account of Abraham Lincoln’s maneuvering to pass the 13th amendment may be up for an Academy Award this year (based on events that took place 150 years ago); but Willimon and Fincher’s depiction of the levers of power that modern day politicians pull to effect change is far more convincing. And Spacey plays the central character of Frank Underwood with such authority the series often takes on a Shakespearean tone (perhaps because Spacey came to the role fresh off nine months of playing Richard III on stage).

My great pleasure in watching all 13 episodes in one weekend was seeing little scenes tucked into early episodes come back six or seven episodes later to unlock the secret of a whole new crisis down the road. So, in the broadest sense, everything that happens fits –– and that’s no small feat. One reason is that Netflix gave the House of Cards team a firm 26-episode commitment. Willimon wrote the first 13 (with other credited writers) before production began, and he is now at work writing the second season.

If streaming media is the new frontier of television, then House of Cards charts a formidable course for all the other wagon trains to follow. And if the second season is as good as the first, I may just pitch a tent and stay awhile.

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