House of Cards, the Netflix original series is back with season three this Friday, which means that if you haven’t seen them yet, you have just enough time to binge-watch seasons one and two. And here are five (spoiler-free) reasons why you should.
1. Kevin Spacey
All the hype surrounding Spacey’s portrayal of U.S. Congressman Frank Underwood is completely justified, and reason enough to invest 26 hours of your life in this show. As the charming yet calculating Jekyll-and-Hyde politician working his way up the Beltway ladder, Spacey gives a performance that boils your blood just as often as it sends an icy chill through your veins. In a tactic that sounds gimmicky, but is extremely effective, Spacey regularly addresses the camera directly. It’s so effective, that at one point early in season two, he looks straight into the camera and asks, “Did you think I’d forgotten you? Perhaps you hoped I had.” I involuntarily ducked out of view, convinced he could see me through the television.
2. How the political sausage is made
I understand that the show is fictional, but it’s hard to imagine that the politics it depicts are too far off from what really goes on in Washington. The depiction is not a flattering one, but if you’re like me, you’d rather know an ugly truth than to be left in the dark. You probably also don’t consider yourself naïve about politics, but after watching this show, you’ll probably realize that you are – or at least were. And that’s a good thing.
Beyond entertainment, House of Cards is doing a true civil service. We may not like what we see when a light is cast on our government, but there’s no doubt that sunshine is the best disinfectant. It’s sobering, but enlightening, to see politicians repeatedly making compromises outside the interests of their office or their constituents for their own personal gain, or so that they can make some other deal down the road. It’s a fragile arrangement, kind of like…a house of cards.
The show so expertly depicts how volatile and ultimately unsustainable a system is that’s built upon constantly traded favors and the buying and selling of political support. For the players of House of Cards, when the game ends they’re left with, at best, a pocket full of IOUs and at worst – well, they’re left for dead in the woods. That last part may be more artistic license than political reality, but then again, as House of Cards likes to remind us, if anyone was being knocked off along the Beltway, would the American public even know? As Underwood himself says in season two, “The road to power is paved with hypocrisies and casualties.”
3. The epic clash between old and new media
The other major force besides politics on House of Cards is journalism. Newspaper reporter Zoe Barnes (played by Kate Mara) is every bit as ambitious as Underwood – and almost as cunning. As she navigates the transitional (to put it mildly) landscape of print journalism, she’s pushing against a behemoth that doesn’t particularly want to be pushed. The über-Millennial journalist, whose communication on the show is depicted in on-screen texts almost as much as actual spoken dialog, is the perfect foil for the old guard powers that be at the Washington Herald, the fictional newspaper for which she writes. It’s an explosive, head-on collision as Zoe’s new media ideals of immediate gratification, opinion-based content, and machine-gun like information blasted without delay to anyone with a smartphone makes direct impact with the slower, objective, rigorous vetting and hard news approach of her old media editor.
It’s difficult to pick a side here since Zoe, whose eagerness too often overshadows her judgment, is pitted against a man who, for all his talk of journalistic integrity, comes across as a Luddite who can’t see the writing on the wall. And he’s a chauvinist. At one point during an argument, he shouts at Zoe, a grown woman, “No TV for a month!” He means she was not to do any more television appearances, but it sounds far more like a father punishing a disobedient little girl. This same fight for the future of journalism is happening in one form or another in real-life newsrooms all over America, and House of Cards gives us a ringside seat to watch the battle play out.
4. Mind-blowing performances
Kevin Spacey certainly deserves to be singled out amongst the show’s cast, but that takes nothing away from the many other incredible performances. Frank Underwood’s wife, Claire, is played with icy cool perfection by Robin Wright, who inhabits all of her scenes like a coiled snake, daring you to take your eyes off of her for a moment so that she may strike. Corey Stoll as the troubled U.S. Representative Peter Russo is the car wreck you can’t look away from. He is caught in the catch-22 pressure cooker of the demands of his home district and the political games he has to play in order to keep the seat in the House required for him to represent them. (Hint: he does not handle the pressure well.) With a cast this huge, it’s amazing that every performance is notable and memorable. Everyone on this show is simply a joy to watch.
5. 50 Shades of Grey
The epically huge number of players on House of Cards includes not just politicians and journalists, but union leaders, heads of international NGOs, lobbyists, businessmen, bohemian photographers, military personnel, restaurateurs, grassroots organizers and computer hackers. They range from seemingly sincere all the way down to straight-up sociopathic. Each and every one of them is complex, and with a couple of notable exceptions (no spoilers!), it’s impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys. It’s a shame the title 50 Shades of Grey was already taken by such abhorrently written psychosexual dreck (Ask me how I really feel about it!), because it suits House of Cards even better. Nothing is black and white here, allegiances are never static, and no one ever knows whom they can really trust. It makes for riveting television that goes beyond the tired anti-hero trope into far more interesting territory.
House of Cards is a mind game of the highest order and I promise if you watch the first episode, you’ll be hooked. And in case you’re not motivated by meticulous character studies or thoughtful and complex examinations of our nation’s greatest institutions, and you’re more interested in the more salacious elements of entertainment, rest assured that this show also includes cocaine, murder, prostitutes and at least one threesome. There’s a lot of television out there to watch, but this show is truly worth the time. So fire up the Netflix and get going. Besides, it’s like four degrees outside. What else are you really going to do?