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Entertainment & Arts

TV review: ‘House of Cards’ is deliciously spiteful

For those who follow the Gospel According to Netflix, Friday is the day the world changes, instantly and forever. The day when viewers, too long oppressed by commercials, cliffhangers and increasingly erratic scheduling dictated by greedy network overlords, rise up in glorious revolution and seize the means of consumption.

As of 12:01 a.m. Friday, all 13 episodes of the highly pedigreed “House of Cards” — Adapted from a British miniseries! Directed, at least initially, by “The Social Network’s” David Fincher! Starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright! — were made totally and instantly available.

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Can you hear the people binge?

Now, Americans watch television in many ways for all sorts of reasons, and it is absurd to imagine that a system that survived the quiz show scandal, the retirement of Walter Cronkite, the explosion of niche channels and the recent reboot of “Charlie’s Angels” will fall before a single show. But just as “The Sopranos” turned HBO into a game-changer and “Mad Men” re-invented AMC, “House of Cards” makes Netflix an undisputed player in serialized drama.

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Indeed, if the rest of the series is as good as the two episodes released early for review (the fact that Netflix made only the episodes directed by Fincher available is slightly worrisome), “House of Cards” will in all probability become the first nontelevised television show to receive an Emmy nomination, or four.

With a sweet ‘n’ deadly Southern accent he may have been saving for Just Such an Occasion, Spacey plays Francis (Frank) Underwood, a longtime congressman and the current House majority whip who, having just helped put the new president-elect in office, is celebrating his certain nomination for secretary of State.

We meet Frank moments before the victory gala, when a neighbor’s dog is hit by a car. Dispatching his bodyguard to fetch the owners, Frank hurries over to the suffering animal. Addressing the camera with aggressive charm that will become his hallmark, he explains that only a few people in this world are truly willing to do what needs to be done.

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Then he kills the dog.

So when the president’s new chief of staff, Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey), a woman Underwood also helped up the ladder, informs him that the president needs him to remain in Congress more than he needs him in the Cabinet, it’s fairly clear what will happen next. Even without the icy prodding of his equally controlled and controlling wife, Claire (Wright), Frank is not the sort of man to suck up a slight and move on. No, he will, instead, be dining on each and every person who stands between him and his new goal — to topple this administration.

“I almost pity him,” Frank says when he catches sight of the man who got the secretary of State nomination. “He didn’t ask to be put on my platter. When I carve him up and toss him to the dogs, only then will he confront that brutal, inescapable truth: ‘My God, all I ever amounted to was chitlins.’”

Filled to the brim with similar asides and long melodic runs of silky and sadistic political diplomacy, this role seems tailor-made for Spacey, with his still-boyish face and double-entendre eyes. As in the original version, Frank turns the camera into a confidant, directly addressing the audience with exposition, insight or simply a complicit glance.

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Spacey’s Frank is more unapologetically brutal than his British progenitor, but executive producer and writer Beau Willimon wisely makes him just as canny and literate, giving the actor deliciously baroque monologues that capture, in cadence and poetry, the seething fury of an ambitious man who has too long done the bidding of others.

The show’s view of government may be off-puttingly jaundiced, but it’s impossible not to root for Frank. In this age of downsizing and infrastructure change, who hasn’t fantasized about devastating professional revenge?

All this does make it difficult for anyone to share a scene with Spacey without getting snacked upon. Fortunately, his wife, Claire, is played by Wright, who is clearly capable of facing down a Shakespeare Festival’s worth of ravening kings and hissing schemers. The calculating political wife has become such a trope that she practically has her own Bratz doll, but Claire is a whole new sort of creature.

Neither ingratiating nor gauntlet throwing, she lives in the long, cool pause of appraisal, occupying silence with a carefully tended ferocity. Of the two, she is no doubt the more deadly, but their’s is a marriage of equals, based in love — inexplicable and at times disturbing but undeniable and fascinating.

Not everything in “House of Cards” lives up to the standard set by its leads; for all its cutting-edge delivery system, it is at times surprisingly pat. To put his plans in play, Frank enlists, as he did in the original, the help of a lovely young journalist, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), and a troubled young congressman, Peter Russo (Corey Stoll). Both are difficult to swallow—Zoe is so anxious to get ahead she promises that, in exchange for inside information, she will “print whatever he says, no questions asked” and Russo apparently didn’t get the memo that cocaine went out with the ‘90s and trysts with prostitutes....well, they never seem to go out of style do they?

Things happen quickly and quite conveniently in “House of Cards,” and actual politics do not interfere much (Frank is working against his own party, after all, which appears to be the Democrats), because this is a story of payback more than politics. It’s a fable, really, illuminated by the exquisite cinematography by Eigil Bryld (who also did “In Bruges” and “Not Fade Away”), who brings the Capitol to life with a luster usually reserved for New York or London to create a tantalizing depiction of the time-honored suspicion that government is run more out of spite than anything else.

And if, when you’re done, you still aren’t satisfied, you can watch the original, also available on Netflix. After which you will be directed to “Other British Thrillers” including “Sherlock,” “Luther,” “Midsomer Murders” and “Rosemary & Thyme.” Because now that Netflix has you, it will not make it easy to let go.

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‘House of Cards’

Where: Netflix

When: Available Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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