While “The Lego Movie,” the reboot “RoboCop” release, “The Monuments Men,” “About Last Night” and “Endless Love” lead the week's box office totals, most conversation I hear involves the Netflix original series “House of Cards.” Based on the 1990 BBC series, which itself was based on 1989 novel by Michael Dobbs, the Netflix production exists in two seasons of 13 episodes each. The second season was released, all 13 episodes at once, four days ago — ironically, on Valentine's Day.
Why ironically? Because I can't think of a less romanticized vision of politics than what this miniseries — adapted to the U.S., as it is, by writer (and show runner) Beau Willimon — applies to the contemporary political scene. But that very dark vision, blended with the show-stopping performances of Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and others — among them Kate Mara, Corey Stoll and Doug Stamper — may be a large reason why the show has attracted such a wide following, not just in the U.S. but also in China.
The miniseries focuses on Francis Underwood, a Southern Congressman (and House Majority Whip), whose efforts on behalf of a just-elected president get ignored when it comes to dishing out post-election favors. Francis, who had hoped to be named Secretary of State, begins a campaign of revenge that ultimately pits him against the president who, for far too long, remains unaware of the snake in his midst. Filled with a legion of characters, all of whom seem to fit in a maze of subplots, the miniseries never strays too far from Francis — with Spacey often turning to address us directly (in much the same way Ian Richardson did in the BBC version).
Being a Netflix original production, “House of Cards” doesn't have to abide by mainstream attitudes toward nudity, sex or profanity. In fact, the nudity and sex scenes are, for the most, less sexy than pointedly discomfiting, representing more a sense of power than anything remotely erotic. And while prominent characters do end up dying, the violence occurs quickly and can't be called graphic.
Given the polarized political scene in the U.S., it's hardly surprising that a miniseries that characterizes Congress and the White House as ruthless, self-serving and corrupt should attract attention. Add to that the riveting presence of Spacey, the sense of a deeper mystery (maybe even conspiracy), and the ability that a multiple-episode release provides to indulge in a weekend-long session of binge-watching, “House of Cards” proves capable of overcoming its weaknesses — lack of plausibility, nobody good to relate to, plot twists that seem to come out of nowhere — at least through its first two seasons.
Season three is forthcoming. We'll have to wait to see if “House of Cards” continues to intrigue us — or ends up being devoured by the very shark it finds itself jumping.