“House of Cards,” the political drama produced by video-rental company Netflix, is smart and compelling entertainment of the highest order. The 51-minute episodes are longer than the network standard of 44 minutes, but feel shorter because the pacing is so tight. The writing is sharp, engaging, and full of hard-edged, dark humor that the outstanding cast, led by Kevin Spacey (who also sports a co-producer credit on the show), seems to revel in. Many of the actors are relatively unknown, but they deliver unforced, natural performances that feel truly authentic.
The show is rated “TV-MA,” and does feature brief nudity and strong language, but those elements never feel gratuitous. The thoughtful and expert directing (established in the first two episodes by “Fight Club” and “Social Network” director David Fincher) is absolutely flawless; like a finely-tuned machine, no element draws attention to itself or detracts from the operation of the whole. This is clearly the result of deliberate and careful forethought. In this article, Fincher is credited with setting camera criteria that included “no zooms, no Steadicam, no handheld.”
Emmy-award winning cinematographer Eigil Bryld has established a lovely style for the show. In virtually every scene, the cast is lovingly lit by large soft sources (often, according to this interview, utilizing banks of flourescent bulbs of different color temperatures selected to match the ambient light), that simulate the look of natural daylight flooding in from huge windows. Here’s a shot from a scene set in Washington, DC.
And here’s a shot from a scene set in small-town South Carolina. As you can see, the color palette and the style of lighting is so similar that, aside from the differences in the background, the two shots could easily be intercut.
The show also favors very symmetrical compositions. Many shots are set up with perfect bilateral symmetry, like this one.
The fact that “House of Cards” is as good as anything on HBO or a major network bodes very well for the future of content production by Netflix and other non-traditional “networks.” By creating top-notch programming in-house, and delivering it directly to viewers via the web, Netflix is demonstrating that the “webisode” business model has grown to full maturity. Without the overhead of top-heavy management and multiple levels of mark-up, Netflix is able to focus its dollars on the production quality of the show itself, rather than on marketing and middlemen. This is good news for independent film and video professionals, who may see doors into the industry opening that the traditional networks have hitherto kept closed.
On a personal level, I enjoy the show for a number of reasons. I recently worked on a friend’s Congressional campaign run, and I saw first-hand that the USA’s political process is just as twisted and corrupt as “House of Cards” depicts it. Also, Kevin Spacey’s character, Frank Underwood, is a congressman from the upstate region of my home state, South Carolina. I like seeing what the show gets right about the Palmetto state, as well as chuckling at what they aren’t quite able to duplicate in their Baltimore-area filming locations.
For example, in episode 8, Frank visits his alma mater, “The Sentinel,” a military college in South Carolina. This is openly modeled after The Citadel, the real military college in South Carolina, which I happen to have done some video work for, and with which I am quite familiar. Some subtleties that might be lost on the casual viewer include Frank’s reference to learning about “honor, duty and respect” (the Core Values of Citadel education), a couple of mentions of “knobs” (a gently mocking term for first-year cadets whose heads are kept completely shaved for the duration of their freshman year) and a brief shot of a flag showing The Sentinel logo, which uses the same font (Trajan) and general design as the actual Citadel logo. You can see these elements in a brief video I edited for the Citadel earlier this year.
In the same episode, Frank’s wife Claire (played by Robin Wright, formerly Robin Wright Penn, formerly the Princess from “The Princess Bride”) stays at an unnamed, upscale hotel which closely resembles Charleston Place, the Orient-Express property in downtown Charleston. Here is Claire sitting at the (oddly tiny) bar …
Whether you live in South Carolina, Washington, or somewhere in between, “House of Cards” is one of the best shows on television. Oops, scratch that … It’s not on TV! Instead, it’s one of the best shows ANYWHERE.