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Spacey, Fincher and Netflix deal a ‘House of Cards’

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Netflix, the company known for movies by mail, has changed the way we watch movies with ready-to-order DVDs and thousands of titles available for instant streaming. And now the red-enveloped rival of the Red Box is changing the way we watch television.

The movie delivery company tapped film director David Fincher (“The Social Network”) and two-time Academy Award-winner Kevin Spacey (“American Beauty”) to headline its new series “House of Cards.”

“Cards,” based on the 1990 mini-series from the U.K., was adapted for small screen by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Beau Willimon (“The Ides of March”). Willimon, a St. Louis native and acclaimed playwright, bases most of his dramatic work on his time in politics, particularly as a volunteer on the “Howard Dean for President” campaign.

Mr. Willimon’s experience must not have been that optimistic.

“House of Cards” chronicles Francis Underwood, the Congress majority whip whose political ambition is only matched by his love for barbecued ribs. In the first of 13 episodes, Underwood is the victim of a bait-and-switch, having been promised a nomination for secretary of state when the new president takes office. Frank does not take this news well.

No, he conspires with an ambitious young journalist (played by Kate Mara) to leak and publish all of his party’s darkest secrets. Underwood’s plan – with the help of his cold and calculating wife (Robin Wright from “Forrest Gump” and “Moneyball”) is to take down everyone between him and White House.
Before going any further, I must admit that I have only seen two of 13 episodes of this exciting new series, but I devoured them. The show is sleek and sinister, deliciously devilish. It’s quick and dirty, like a stab wound, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

The success of the show relies on Spacey. I have often mourned the fact that Spacey seems to be throwing away his talent. He is an actor capable of completely captivating his audience and consuming the screen with his charm and charisma. Even mean Spacey makes it hard to look away. But, for many years, the thespian has appeared in money-grabbing roles in “Horrible Bosses” and “Fred Claus,” not a trace of his iconic performances as Lester Burnham or Verbal Kint in tact.

However, Spacey returns to form in “House of Cards,” and what rare form he is in. He chews into in the wordy monologues and biting quips with all the bravado and gusto of a theater performer. Indeed, that’s what Spacey gets so right. Willimon’s script reads like a Shakespearean history play – or a political tragedy. Underwood’s arc and ambitions mirror Richard III and Mrs. Underwood is a dead ringer for Lady Macbeth.

Fincher, too, is great fit for this type of material. His characteristic low lighting and sharp focus create a paranoid world of lies and intrigue. Like he did with the campus of Harvard, Fincher, with his framing and shot composition, turns the White House into the House on Haunted Hill. Washington, D.C. is the scene of a horror film, and there be monsters.

I must reiterate how little of the series I have seen, so take this review as a review of the first two episodes. Netflix, not unintentionally, front-loaded the series with Fincher’s episodes. It’s a bit concerning that the series changes hands to Joel Schumacher (“Batman Forever,” “Batman and Robin”), but let’s not count our rotten eggs before they hatch.

Netflix released all 13 episodes of “House of Cards” on the same day, in a grand and monumental pop culture television event. The move capitalizes on how we watch TV – or at least how Netflix customers watch TV – shoveling it in in grand mouthfuls. It’s a delicious treat, ripe for consumption. But Netflix is not changing the way we watch TV so much as the way we watch TV is changing how TV is made. “House of Cards” is an expensive and risky enterprise, but I feel it will pay off. With a full house including Fincher, Spacey and Willimon, Netflix went all in on a great hand.

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