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Screen Scene: In praise of “House Of Cards” and a new source for quality shows

Good writing can improve a silly plot, but writing alone can’t save a series from bad casting or acting. Nothing torpedoes a production quicker than actors you simply don’t care about.

Love them, hate them; do anything but be indifferent to them. Actors who don’t register with the audience kill a film project quicker than a 32 round magazine in an assault rifle.

There’ve been countless big and small screen productions of great ambition, productions with fabulous writing and directing that have fallen flat because the audience didn’t give a rat’s posterior about the players. No amount of special effects or writing wizardry can save those theatric efforts.

A certain prequel to the movie “Alien” comes to mind as an excellent, recent example.

Happily that’s not the case with Netflix’s first venture into original programming. It’s not possible to be indifferent to the denizens of “House Of Cards.” Indifference isn’t an option. Love them or loathe them, one can’t ignore Frank and Claire Underwood.

Sympathetic villains and flawed heroes are hybrids. They’re interesting, and the most skilled leave you wondering, “Do I sympathize with this person?”

Kevin Spacey stars in and produces “House Of Cards.” His acting, as always, is effortless. Spacey’s portrayal of U.S. Rep. Francis “Frank” J. Underwood is riveting, horrifying and complex.

Frank’s wife Claire is a Washington insider and another frightfully complicated spirit. Claire’s day job is executive director of the non-profit Clean Water Initiative. But behind that altruistic self is a more important vocation, the formidable task of portraying Congressman Underwood’s loving wife and “the woman behind the man.”

The public persona of the Underwoods is that of a well-oiled charm machine. Yet in a short time, it’s clear that the bigger truth is the blunt force of a heterosexual Washingtonian power couple and the symbiotic, reptilian nature of claiming and holding onto power.

One of the more effective devices in “House Of Cards” is that Kevin Spacey often steps out of character and addresses the audience directly, looking straight into the camera and peeling away the superfluous to reveal the real issues, the real meat.

“People in this place are too taken by money,” the Congressman drawls to the camera in that smooth, oily Southern manner that Spacey does so well. “They’re taken by money and they overlook the real objective: power.”

“Money is a mac-mansion in Sarasota that begins to fall apart in 10 years. Power is a stone monument, built to weather the centuries.”

One way the congressman manages his power is via the media. Congressman Underwood utilizes a young reporter as his mouthpiece, a third person to herald the third rail issues of the Underwood agendas.

Zoe Barnes is a talented writer and unflinching proponent of the Internet. She is a standard of her generation, for hard copy is dead to her eyes and unyielding temptation to adhere to that half-truth earned her the undesirable nickname, “Twitter Twat” among her peers.

Zoe serves the Underwoods well.

In one of many subplots, Frank Underwood must respond to a teacher’s strike, a very delicate situation for the congressman, for Underwood is a Democrat and must be seen as being supportive of the teacher’s union.

In private, he is not.

He merely wants to be rid of a nettling situation and it falls to Claire to plant a phrase in the media, via Zoe: “Disorganized labor.”

The phrase catches like wild fire, torching every talking head on every network.

Much like the current use of the expletive, “Look,” which is over-used to initiate every talking head’s point as of late, and much like the greatly unpronounceable “rapprochement” of the last decade, “disorganized labor” is a media echo-chamber phrase that knocks the wind out of the teacher’s union.

The congressman’s objective is served, his hands are clean and Zoe, the tool to do so. Young, naïve and earnest Zoe is utilized as simply one more player in the “House Of Cards.”

Easy as it would be to revile Frank and Claire Underwood, and as repugnant and cruel as they seem to be to others and to each other, there is an undeniable undercurrent of love. Amid all the complexities of their professional life, despite the infidelity and manipulations, Frank and Claire are joined at the hip by something far greater than mere power.

And that’s the complexity that makes for rare drama.

As so much network television dies a slow, spiraling and agonizing “reality based” death, we’re going to have to look to HBO and Showtime, the BBC and AMC for real, grown-up entertainment.

With the success of “House Of Cards,” Netflix has proved be yet another player and source.

Kurt Niece writes about visual arts for SDGLN. He is a freelance journalist from Lakewood, Ohio. He is the author of "The Breath of Rapture" and an artist who sells his work on his website.