House of Cards Netflix review: A sinister, streaming success

We've seen episodes one and two of House of Cards, available only on Netflix from tomorrow. Here's our verdict.

Note: we've made every effort to keep this review of House of Cards episodes one and two free of significant spoilers, but if you'd rather view Netflix's political drama as a completely blank slate, look away now.

House of Cards kicks off with Kevin Spacey strangling a wounded dog, and as the drama unfolds, events in this dark political drama don't get any more humane.

An adaptation of the 1990 BBC series of the same name, House of Cards charts a gleeful rampage through Washington, as Spacey's character destroys rival politicians with a heady mix of blackmail, gossip and press manipulation. CNET has seen the first two episodes of the new series, which goes live in its complete form exclusively on Netflix tomorrow. Read on for our verdict.

In the first episode we see Spacey's character, majority whip Frank Underwood, passed over for a long-awaited promotion. That insult is the final straw for Underwood who, with his wife's encouragement, resolves to lie and cheat his way to the top spot.

Quickly realising he'll need a way to spread muck without arousing suspicion, Underwood recruits the naive but ambitious Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), an aspiring political reporter for a fictional Washington paper. In exchange for anonymity, Underwood feeds Barnes a steady stream of explosive secrets from deep within the political system, all of which suit his devious ends.

Although he's definitely a bad guy, you're drawn to Spacey's character through the use of frequent to-camera monologues, in which Underwood explains his actions and motives directly to the viewer. It's slightly jarring at first, but by the end of episode two you'll feel like a guilty co-conspirator, brimming with the delicious drama that comes from knowing a secret that mustn't be told.

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Though politics is central to the plot, you don't need to be a congressional buff to wrap your head around what's happening -- the show moves at a pace, but I was just about able to keep a grasp on Underwood's Machiavellian ploys.

Seeing each twisting scheme pay off proves the high point of the first two episodes, and you'll want to punch the air every time you see a politician staring, horrified at the morning paper. These satisfying moments are frequent, and promise a show that will be jam-packed with political wonks glowering at BlackBerrys, or choking on their cornflakes as a TV news report confirms their career has reached an abrupt, undignified end.

"Sweaty, leering tories"

The plot of the first episode mirrors that of the BBC miniseries almost exactly, but the tone of the new show is very different. If the British original was cigarette fug, and cramped wood-panelled rooms packed with sweaty, leering tories, the remake is ruthlessly sanitised; all air-conditioning, plush carpet and spacious concrete car parks. It's cold and modern, and filmed with a pervasive blue tint that makes it feel as if all the warmth has gone out of the world.

Sounds grim I know, and there were moments where the icy camerawork -- combined with an almost non-stop tinkly piano theme -- made the opening episodes almost too soul-sucking to bear. Happily there's the occasional dose of humour however, and even something as simple as Spacey privately raising an eyebrow to the viewer can quickly lighten the mood.

Spacey has an impossible act to follow in the late Ian Richardson, who took firm control of the original series. While I wouldn't say Spacey bests Richardson's gloriously slimy performance, he certainly does a cracking job.

Spacey adopts a strong southern drawl for the character that Brits may find distracting to begin with, but it proves effective in scenes where Underwood affects mock-concern for rivals he's working hard to destroy -- imagine Colonel Sanders persuading Ronald McDonald to eat a bowl of poison and you get the idea.

Ultimately I was impressed with the first two episodes, and they're well worth a watch if you're a Netflix customer. My only concern is that the brilliant BBC original was only four hours long, while the remake will be 13 hour-long episodes, with a second series already in the works. In other words, it may run out of steam part-way through.

Fans of the first show will also remember that the central character's relationship with the young journalist goes to some dark places that I'm not sure the US remake will have the gumption to tackle. Fingers crossed though, because it was riveting (if unsettling) viewing the first time around.

Netflix-nay on the udio-stay

House of Cards is a more significant show than it may seem, because it sees streaming service Netflix take the show-making role of a full-blooded studio -- a bold move that risks spooking the organisations that already provide TV and movies to Netflix itself.

Fingers crossed Netflix keeps producing original shows however, because there are big benefits to its method, especially for UK viewers. All episodes are dumped onto the service at once, so you don't need to wait a week to see a new episode, and there's no delay between the US and UK airing -- both nations will get House of Cards on 1 February.

Will Netflix take on traditional TV channels by providing both programmes and a place to watch them? And if you've seen it, what did you think of House of Cards? Would you like to see Netflix make a movie? Let me know in the comments or on our Facebook wall.

 

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