Let the butchery begin...
It’s fair to say that Netflix has fundamentally changed the way people watch television.And when the history of Netflix is written, there’s one show that will be recognised as a real game changer - House of Cards. It wasn’t the first series that Netflix produced, that honour goes to Lillyhammer, but it was the one that really caught the public’s attention. It also best exemplified Netflix's approach when it came to producing their own shows, attracting top class talent with the promise of decent budgets and the kind of creative freedom that just isn't found on the more established networks.
The series is executive-produced by David Fincher, who also directed the first two episodes of the first season, thus establishing a style that later directors have followed; including James Foley, Carl Franklin, Joel Schumacher and Jodie Foster. The head writer is Beau Willimon who, having already penned The Ides of March, is no stranger to the machinations of American politics. However, presiding over all the backstabbing, back-channels and double-dealing is Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood.
House of Cards is based upon the British series of the same name, that charted the rise and fall of Machiavellian Conservative MP Francis Urquhart, played brilliantly by Ian Richardson. Whether the same fate awaits Francis Underwood, Urquhart’s American counterpart, remains to be seen because the Netflix show obviously doesn’t exactly follow the British version. However one thing it does carry over is the lead character breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the viewer. It’s a credit to Spacey’s abilities as an actor that even those familiar with the original version can completely embrace his version of Francis. His every comment, aside and look to camera is priceless and one of the reasons for the show’s popularity because not only is it great political drama but it's also very funny.
Kevin Spacey dominates House of Cards as the deliciously Machiavellian Frank Underwood.
The first season was a huge hit for Netflix, both critically and commercially, helping to raise their profile and increase subscriptions. It won numerous awards, including three Emmys and a Golden Globe, all without ever being broadcast on a network. The idea that such a well-made and popular show could emerge from an internet based streaming service would have seemed ludicrous just a few years ago. However with House of Cards and, more recently, Orange is the New Black Netflix has changed the face of television, ushering in the age of 'binge-viewing'.
Not that Netflix can lay claim to either the term or the habit, binge-viewing has been around since TV shows started getting released as DVD box sets and people suddenly found they'd lost an entire weekend. However their strategy of releasing a new series in its entirety and allowing people to watch however and whenever they want is clearly proving popular with audiences. After all who really wants to be tied to broadcast schedules or wait a week to find out what happened next? Well on Friday the 14th of February, Netflix gave fans of House of Cards the best Valentine's Day present possible, with all thirteen episodes of Season Two.
Despite having binged our way through Season Two of House of Cards, we can assure you that this review will remain spoiler-free, after all, it's the twists and turns of the plot that make it so compelling. This new season had been heavily trailed but thankfully the trailers managed to whet fans' appetites without spoiling the surprises, a trick that modern feature film trailers could really learn from. The new season picks up right where the previous one left off, so a recap of Season One would be a good idea before piling into Chapters 14-26. That's what Netflix call them, which really helps to create the feeling that this is one long story, almost like a novel. Kevin Spacey has said he approves of this approach and hopes it will help programme makers move away from the established structure of cliffhanger endings, allowing them to tell the story more organically. The good news is that Netflix have already commissioned a third season, which is how many the original British series had, and it certainly makes sense given the story's obvious three-act structure.
All the main characters are back at the start of the first episode of Season Two, although the focus of the action has obviously moved from Congress to the White House. Many of the established characters will be weeded out as the season progresses, some butchered and others put out to grass but who and what remains a surprise. There are new characters as well, a replacement Chief Whip, the President's wife, a new press secretary and various other shifty characters, all with their own agendas. However at the centre of it all remains Frank and his equally calculating and ruthless wife Claire, brilliantly played by Robin Wright. Theirs is a remarkably understanding partnership based upon shared ambition and it's easy to forget just how cunning Claire is, even next to a character as duplicitous as her husband.
Whilst not quite reaching the heights of the first season, this second term retains the ability to surprise and remains unmissable.
Does Season Two live up to impeccable standards set by the first season? Well there are a couple of new characters that don't ring true, some self contained episodes in the middle that drag a bit and a spurious sub-plot involving computer hacking but it's mostly business as usual. Fans will be glad to know there's plenty of intrigue, twists and surprises amongst the conniving politicians, lobbyists, flacks and hacks that populate Washington. As Frank schemes his way up the 'greasy pole' there are plenty of people lining up to knock him off but somehow, despite all the terrible things he does, you still root for him. There will be both new threats and old and certain events from Season One will comeback to haunt Frank but woe betide anyone who stands in the way of his relentless ascent to the top.
By virtue of the story some characters from the first season disappear quite quickly, whilst others like billionaire businessman Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) are given greater prominence in the new season. Although why the character of Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan) gets so much screen time is a mystery, as her story-arc seemed finished by the second episode of Season Two. Still it was good to see Freddy and his BBQ ribs get more attention and among the newcomers, Molly Parker is excellent as Jackie Sharp, the new Chief Whip.
Quite rightly Netflix regard House of Cards as their flagship product and given the level of Hollywood talent involved, it shouldn't come as a surprise to discover that the show looks fantastic. The production values are excellent and the show is shot on the Red Epic in a ratio of 2.00:1, giving it a very cinematic look. Since House of Cards is shot at a resolution of 4K, Netflix are using it to push their new Ultra HD service but even in their regular 'Super HD' it still looks impressive, with minimal banding or compression artefacts.
We've been spoilt with brilliant television in recent years with shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones bringing a degree of quality that is often missing at the cinema these days. But even those great shows can't claim to actually change the way we watch television. House of Cards is part of a revolution, somewhat fitting for a political drama, so if you don't want to be left behind it's time to join in. Besides, if you don't you'll be missing one of the best TV shows in years because House of Cards is, quite simply, unmissable.
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