For Francis Underwood the only thing worth worshipping is power. In its name he is prepared to seduce and traduce, to love and to lie. Luckily for him he works as the US Congress’s House Majority Whip on Washington’s Capitol Hill, just the right place for a man who likes getting his hands dirty while keeping his reputation clean.
From the opening minutes of David Fincher’s compelling remake of 1990s BBC mini-series House of Cards, as Kevin Spacey’s Underwood calmly informs us: ‘I have no patience for useless pain’ even as his hands deal swift death, we are aware that this is not so much a faithful adaptation as a fascinating companion piece.
It is also far more than simply a television series. For House of Cards, which reputedly cost Internet-streaming company Netflix $100m and which has been commissioned for two 13-episode series, is set to transform television watching. From today the entire first season was available to Netflix subscribers worldwide eliminating the need for rights deals and handing control to the viewer.
The way it works is simple: no more waiting for a weekly instalment, no more relying on DVR, simply subscribe to Netflix and watch when you want either on your computer or on television via a PS3, Wii or Xbox 360. Those who wish to gorge over the weekend can do so. Those who prefer famine to feast can parcel out episodes accordingly.
So is the end product worth the gamble? This is a show that wants to be considered in the same breath as the award winning likes of Mad Men and Breaking Bad and Fincher’s taut direction certainly ensures it looks the part, even if it doesn’t quite scale the subtle heights of those two dramas.
It’s still a class act, however, with a lovely central performance from Spacey, whose Underwood is a more restrained creation than Ian Richardson’s arch Francis Urquhart, a Southern Democrat who uses smiling courtesy to hide the ravenous political beast within.
Richardson’s Urquhart, arguably television’s first real anti-hero, is a hard act to follow but while his knowing ghost hovers at the edges – most notably when Spacey finally utters those most famous of lines “You might very well think that, I couldn’t possibly comment” – Underwood is a fascinating character in his own right, brimming with suppressed disappointment and tamping down his rage with a practised charm.
Nor is this a one-man show. There’s strong support from Robin Wright as Underwood’s icy, equally ambitious wife Claire and Kate Mara as the young journalist whom Underwood manipulates for his own ends while Michael Kelly’s creepy aide Doug is almost more repellent than the boss he serves.
And like all the best dramas this House of Cards works because it presents us with a believable, self-contained world that arrives fully formed on our screens. We might not like Francis Underwood but we cannot help but follow fascinated as he begins his quest to consolidate power. The real question remains how will you watch it: bit by bit or this weekend in one gulp?