Power corrupts, goes the old adage. And the more power you want, the more corrupt you have to be to get it.
Francis Underwood has a weakness for power. He breathes it, sweats it. For more than 20 years, he has walked the very halls of power in Congress, rising through the ranks to become majority whip. But it's not enough for him and, in House of Cards' first season, we see the lies he'll tell, the schemes he'll hatch and the laws he'll break to get the power he believes he deserves.
"That's how you devour a whale," he says. "One bite at a time."
So by the time the second season opens, he has eaten enough blubber to be tapped for the position of vice president. He and his devoted and equally scheming, merciless wife, Claire, take almost a literal victory lap—running through a darkened park.
But there are loose ends dangling. Call girls to be eliminated. Reporters who need to be squelched. Clearly, Underwood isn't done yet, not by a longshot. There's too much work to be done, too much dirt to dig into, too many secrets—and potentially bodies—to bury.
House of Cards is a reimagining of a 1990 BBC miniseries (which was 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 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."
Indeed, with all episodes of each successive season getting unveiled to website subscribers at once, House of Cards has become the poster child for binge-watching, and few binge more than the District of Columbia's own politicians. President Barack Obama even tweeted before Netflix unveiled the new season: "Tomorrow: @HouseOfCards. No spoilers, please."
But while the writing is sharp and the acting supersedes the writing, the series falls far short of must-see TV. Indeed, the MA-rated show makes for some seriously uncomfortable viewing.
The political positioning is clearly underhanded and often illegal, sometimes even murderous—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. Indeed, these sex scenes can be very graphic—occasionally as explicit and 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 drugs make appearances. And violence is merely another "tool." 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, the chilling House of Cards hits well below the Beltway.
As he prepares to move into the VP chair, Underwood begins plotting his next set of Machiavellian moves—one of which is murder. (He pushes a woman in front of a subway train, whereupon we see the fall and hear the impact.) Loyal bodyguard Stamper ushers a potentially incriminating prostitute out of D.C. Claire gets a pregnant woman's insurance cancelled so that she'll start playing the game. "I'm willing to let that child wither and die inside you, if that's what's required," Claire tells her. We hear other threats and discussions of another murder, as well as how pigs are butchered. A woman tries to stab someone.
Zoe and editor/lover Lucas have sex. We see movement and hear explicit conversation. She walks to the shower, naked (fully visible from the rear, as well as much of the side). A friend receives obscene pictures of her, including one with her breasts exposed.
We hear the f-word a dozen times, the s-word once. (Cufflinks bear the letters "F" and "U.") Other swears include "b‑‑ch," "a‑‑," "h‑‑‑" and "d‑‑n." Jesus' name is abused once. Characters drink.
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.