There were people who hated House of Cards right from the start. Some were political analysts who didn’t find any of the outlandish events on the show credible. Others considered the cynical tone unappealing and sort of unhelpful in a world that was becoming increasingly ugly; did we really need a show where every politician was dirty or even downright murderous? Personally, I loved it from the start and saw it deteriorate over the years. Perhaps it was another example of a TV show that should have been a miniseries – just like the British original on which it was based.
Rising in the ranks
When we first met Francis ”Frank” Underwood (Kevin Spacey), he was the Democratic House majority whip, eager to rise in the ranks. After being betrayed by the President (Michel Gill) whom he initially had a deal with, Frank started undermining the President’s agenda, which led to his manipulation of an alcoholic Pennsylvania congressman (Corey Stoll) and a sexual liaison with a young political reporter (Kate Mara). Frank’s wife Claire (Robin Wright) knew and accepted the affair, since it served a greater cause – the ultimate elevation of her husband and herself to higher office. Claire and Frank shared a bond, an understanding, that anything is acceptable in the quest for power.
As they eventually reached all the way to the White House, husband and wife faced challenges, including making sure their secret agreements were kept.
Spacey a terrific choice
Everything looked right at first. House of Cards showed the world that Netflix knew how to put on an original show, it had David Fincher as executive producer (and director of the pilot episode) and Ides of March (2011) writer and playwright Beau Willimon as showrunner. Spacey was a terrific choice to play the ruthless and power-hungry Underwood. His performance has been criticized as hammy, and it was at times… but who cares? His Southern drawl (Frank was born in South Carolina) was used to perfection by a true theatrical talent like Spacey, and he certainly often came across as intimidating. The character’s habit of breaking the fourth wall and forcing us in the audience to share his plotting was borrowed from the British original; Spacey really was a suitably Americanized version of Ian Richardson’s prime minister. Just as evil, but a tad more vulgar.
When Spacey found himself in legal trouble in 2017 after multiple cases of sexual misconduct, he was ultimately fired and the show focused its sixth and final season on Claire. The now deceased president’s shadow inevitably hung over the proceedings; if the show had been accused of histrionics before, now it turned simply dull instead. No shadow over Wright though; she always did her best, bringing life to the cunning Claire. But part of the show’s appeal was the dark love between her and Frank, abruptly ended because of Spacey’s behavior.
I loved Jeff Beal’s tense, brooding and irresistible music theme for the show. The technical details were always superior; exteriors were usually filmed in Baltimore, but the show had a way of feeling like it’s very D.C. House of Cards was no documentary, but it was fun and scary at times. When Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 it was harder for critics to argue that the show was all that far removed from reality.
House of Cards 2013-2018:U.S. 73 episodes. Made for TV. Color. Created by Beau Willimon. Theme: Jeff Beal. Cast: Kevin Spacey (Francis Underwood, 13-17), Robin Wright (Claire Underwood), Michael Kelly (Doug Stamper), Jayne Atkinson, Boris McGiver, Derek Cecil (14-18), Mahershala Ali (13-16), Nathan Darrow (13-16), Constance Zimmer (13-14, 16, 18), Michel Gill (13-14, 16-17), Paul Sparks (15-17), Sebastian Arcelus (13-16), Molly Parker (14-16), Elizabeth Marvel (14-16), Rachel Brosnahan (13-15), Patricia Clarkson (17-18), Campbell Scott (17-18), Neve Campbell (16-17), Joel Kinnaman (16-17), Sakina Jaffrey (13-14), Kristen Connolly (13-14), Kate Mara (13-14), Corey Stoll (13), Diane Lane (18), Greg Kinnear (18).
Emmys: Outstanding Directing 12-13; Guest Actor (Reg E. Cathey) 14-15. Golden Globes: Best Actor (Spacey) 15; Actress (Wright) 14.
Quote: “Proximity to power deludes some into thinking they wield it.” (Spacey)