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Sunday, May 19, 2024
Callie Kollenbroich columnist mug

'House of Cards' showcases television's cinematic potential

Last summer, I holed up in an air-conditioned room and didn’t resurface until I had binged the entire first season of "House of Cards," Netflix’s first successful stab at original programming. The opening scene is still as vivid in my mind today as it was those many months ago—we hear a dog get hit by a car offscreen and an impeccably dressed Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) arrives at the pitiful scene. While wrapping his bare hands around the neck of the whimpering dog, he looks directly at the camera and delivers the first of many monologues in a quaint, southern accent. He squeezes until its cries become faint and, after a few seconds, they cease altogether. We get the sense that Frank Underwood is the epitome of a ruthless pragmatist and a perfect spokesperson for the political underworld.

Everything from the cinematography to Spacey’s convincing performance operated in perfect symbiosis to create a sequence and a first season that still resonates to this day. This is cinematic television.

The first season culminated in murder, Underwood’s rise in the ranks and a slew of award wins and nominations. Viewers were left reeling, wondering if and how the next season would carry on its scandalous tradition. I have good news, folks—the ascent continues and season 2 is even more praiseworthy than the first.

In the first few episodes alone, lives are taken. There is extortion, rape, a threesome worthy of a knee slap and too many lies told to keep count. I won’t give away any spoilers but be prepared to pry your jaw from the floor when it drops.

In attempts to keep my promise, I will stray from a traditional plot summary and focus on why season 2, and "House of Cards" in general, is so deserving of its acclaim. What makes this such a well-received television show is the simple fact that it doesn’t seem like television at all.

In truth, what we have is a political soap opera, which alongside TV as an artistic medium, has been a largely delegitimized genre in the entertainment industry. We’ve all heard the unflattering terms—“boob tube,” “vast wasteland,” “chewing gum for the mind”—well, "House of Cards" is in no way a piece of chewing gum. Rather, it better resembles what we have come to expect and admire from classical Hollywood cinema.

Even some of Hollywood’s most prominent figures have dabbled in the series’ creation. David Fincher, Jodie Foster and even the show’s own Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) have all lent their artistic services.

Similarly, the creators of "House of Cards" have cherry-picked a cast of seasoned faces, some of whom are no strangers to the Academy. I was already obsessed with Kevin Spacey even before the premiere of the first episode—Lester Burnham is one of my favorite onscreen anti-heroes— but his portrayal of the ruthless Frank Underwood has undoubtedly confirmed my love. He’s unscrupulous, conniving and a talented manipulator—there were times when even I found myself feeling charmed by his convincing demeanor, that is, until he looked directly at the camera and flashed a devious grin.

Just as her character in the show, Robin Wright has proven her ability to hold her own next to a powerhouse like Kevin Spacey. Last season she took home a Golden Globe for her role as Claire, Frank’s equally shameless wife. Season 2 offered her a substantial amount of screentime, allowing her character to blossom into one of the series’ most vital entities. You can almost feel the conflict that bubbles inside of her when she begins to realize that guilt can creep in on even the coldest of souls.

Much of the criticism surrounding the series has to do with its simplified depiction of policy-making. I study film, which is to say that I am not quite an expert on international relations, nor do I fully grasp the logistics of how a bill becomes a law. If I wanted to learn such things, I would read a book on political science. I don’t know about you but I have been warned about the precarious nature of “Hollywood history” and I am fully content to use my naivete as an excuse to ignore these concerns.

In perfect symmetry, the final scene of season 2 struck me just as forcefully as the first had. Not only was it epic, it felt worthy of a big screen.

Think Callie is crazy to love “House of Cards?” Let her know why you think the show may be flawed at ckollenrboic@wisc.edu.

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