Netflix delivers with House of Cards

Justin M. McGee, Assistant editor

Sex, drugs and politics. By making the entire first season of its new political drama “House of Cards” available for streaming immediately on Friday, Feb. 1, Netflix has broken decades of tradition established by the big networks.

Banking on the popularity of what has become known as “marathon watching,” viewers habitually watching a series episode after episode in quick succession, Netflix has taken a chance with “House of Cards.”

“House of Cards” is an adaptation of the BBC’s 1990 “House of Cards.” The BBC miniseries was based on Michael Dobbs’ novel by the same name.

Kevin Spacey plays the role of antihero Francis J. Underwood, the House Majority Whip from the great state of South Carolina. Representing South Carolina’s fifth congressional district, Underwood is an expert politician with years of experience under his belt.

Underwood will lie, cheat, steal and seduce to get what he wants. The series sheds light on the dark and dodgy backroom deals and the horse trading that has become synonymous with Washington in the current political climate. The series takes a gamble showcasing Washington’s corruption while the American people are still reeling from a hard fought presidential election, and the gamble has definitely paid off.

The first season of the drama weaves a number of elaborate and complicated storylines together in a flawlessly coherent way. Underwood’s story starts off after a presidential election. President-elect Garrett Walker has passed over Underwood for the position of Secretary of State. Underwood then seeks vengeance for the President-elect’s betrayal. Through convoluted backroom deals, furious coercion and ruthless blackmail, the House Majority Whip becomes the ultimate puppet master.

The series takes advantage of what may be today’s most popular form of communication: the text message. An integrated onscreen graphic displays text messages the characters in the scene receive. What could easily be a cheap gimmick is given immense gravitas through its subtle use and the way it intertwines story lines. For example, Underwood can text reporter Zoe Barnes, played by Kate Mara, a hot lead for a story he wants leaked to the press and no congressmen in the room will be aware of it. This integration adds a new layer of storytelling that underscores one of the main themes of the series as a whole: the emergence of technology in the political arena.

At times, it is possible for the audience to get tangled in the complicated web of deceit Underwood spends so much time spinning; his schemes are multilayered and sometimes utterly disorienting, even for the most attentive viewer. To help lead the audience along, Underwood will occasionally break the fourth wall: he will look into the camera and explain his motives more clearly. Underwood’s asides make the audience like Underwood.  They are essential. We feel like we are on his side, and without the slightest trace of apprehension, we find ourselves rooting for his corrupt plans (because we are really rooting for the pieces of ourselves that we see in Underwood). The asides are so smoothly integrated into the plot, they seem perfectly natural, almost as if we have been waiting for Underwood to speak directly to us all along. “House of Cards,” once again, avoids the tempting gimmick.

Because the release of this series is so much different than typical television programs, talking about the show with friends can be problematic. Without the television network regulating the audience’s viewing habits, the episodes can be watched in any order at any time. “House of Cards” may prove to be the first series to truly and substantially break away from the confines of a network’s tight schedule and commercial breaks.

Alone, “House of Cards” is worth much more than the price of a Netflix membership.