Francis Underwood has played the good soldier, politically speaking. For 22 years he's labored in Congress, rising to the level of majority whip. He's done right by the voters, by his party and—most importantly right now—the new president of the United States. Without Underwood's support, President Walker wouldn't have been elected. And now Underwood expects some political payback—in the form of an appointment to Secretary of State.
But politics can be a fickle game, and the new administration reneges on its promise to Underwood. They need him more in the House, they say. Keep soldiering on, they say.
Underwood—shocked, frustrated and livid—has other plans. With help from his wife, Claire, he plots out a devious gamble to consume the new administration, step by methodical step. "That's how you devour a whale," he says. "One bite at a time."
He'll blackmail congressional underlings to do his bidding. He'll have his staffers spy on political opponents. He'll take Zoe Barnes, a young and ambitious newspaper reporter, into his confidence and turn her into his media mouthpiece. And as a side benefit he'll get to bed the pretty young thing too. Isn't that what they say? Politics makes strange bedfellows?
He might even have to kill somebody before he's done.
House of Cards is a reimagining of a 1990 BBC miniseries (itself based on a novel by Michael Dobbs). But little of that British beginning remains here. Delving deeply into the imagined muck of the Beltway, following Underwood's Machiavellian moves with a sort of detached relish, this series feels inherently American. Not in a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington sort of way, but rather in a democratic underbelly we hope isn't real but fear might be way.
Fronted by David Fincher (the Oscar-nominated director of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network), this Netflix original series has an A-list cast and a glamorous sheen of prestige. "I felt for the past 10 years that the best writing that was happening for actors was happening in television," Fincher told hitfix.com. "And so I had been looking to do something that was longer form." Netflix outbid cable channels like HBO and AMC to land the program, believing it was the perfect beginning in its effort to build its own brand of Emmy-worthy "television." (All 13 episodes of the show's first season were unveiled to subscribers at once, with another season already planned.)
But while the writing is sharp and the acting supersedes the writing, House of Cards falls far short of 21st-century must-see TV. Indeed, the MA-rated show makes for some seriously uncomfortable viewing.
The political machinations are clearly underhanded and often illegal—a problematic, if expected, aspect of the series. Sex is both pastime and weapon for these gladiator politicians, as they work hard to keep their sordid interludes away from the eyes of the press … and in full view of online viewers. These sex scenes can be very graphic—as explicit and as skin-centric as anything one might see on HBO's Game of Thrones.
Netflix is not beholden to the FCC to clean up any language, either. Thus, both the f- and s-word make regular appearances. Hard-core, illegal drugs are taken onscreen. Violence and violent themes show up from time to time too. If House of Cards was a feature film, not a TV series, it'd fit comfortably and undeniably under a scarlet R rating.
For all its buzz, House of Cards is a show that hits well below the Beltway.
"Bad, for a Greater Good"
In this series opener, Underwood, with help from wife Claire, begins to pull together his scheme to undermine the executive branch of government, pulling in the pawns they'll need. One is troubled pol Peter Russo, who has sex with a staffer (we see movements, his bare backside and her bare breasts) and then, later, gets busted for DUI. Another is the sexuality-flaunting reporter Zoe Barnes. Underwood ogles her first, then decides to work with her, giving her someone's proposals to publish. "We're in a very gray area, ethically, legally," Zoe says. "Which I'm OK with."
Russo has an illicit conversation with his staffer on the phone. He also makes a graphic suggestion after the two have sex. We hear a reference to a politician being secretly gay. We see people drink wine and whiskey. Underwood smokes cigarettes. We hear the sounds of him putting down a dog that's been hit by a car. People act in a duplicitous manner.
When Russo swears to God that his DUI arrest was a lone misstep, Underwood says, "Then you must hold God in very low esteem, because we both know that's a lie." We see Washington's elite at a church service, where the priest exhorts them to be humble, quoting Matthew 23:12.
Characters say the f-word four times, the s-word twice, "pr‑‑k" and "a‑‑" once each. They also abuse Jesus' name twice and God's name four or five times.