‘House of Cards’: A Semi-Maddening Drama That Makes Its Bank On Casting

house-of-cards-banner-630x167Kevin Spacey may well be the most talented actor featured on House of Cards, but his portrayal of Frank Underwood pales in comparison to Robin Wright’s portrayal of Claire, as well as Michael Kelly’s portrayal of Douglas Stamper. No surprise when it comes to the former. At the age of 47, Robin Wright is very quietly approaching the mantle of icon – Forrest Gump, The Princess Bride, a 20-year relationship with Sean Penn. I mean, c’mon. And the lick of it is how ravishing Robin Wright appears on film. Chalk it up to new love, combined with botox, a rabid sex life and some dietary changes. Whatever the case, the fact remains, Robin Wright’s on-camera persona is absolutely spell-binding, a loyal sword wearing stilettos, wrapped in a variety of pencil skirts.

Meanwhile, the hidden jewel of House of Cards – its secret weapon, so to speak – has always been vet actor, Michael Kelly, a perennial sidekick best known for playing Agent Goddard on The Sopranos and Captain Patterson in Generation Kill. As Douglas Stamper, the key to Kelly’s performance resides in its powers of restraint. Every nuance comes off tempered, every movement, strictly measured. The result is a more amplified – if not infinitely more daunting – presence. The fact that Stamper’s been resigned to fixer duty for the better part of two seasons says little for the writers’ room at House of Cards, an ailing institution that treats its lynchpins more like puppets, preening as need be based on the whims of Francis Underwood.

In accordance with the BBC originalHouse of Cards sets fire to its fourth wall, allowing Underwood – and only Underwood – to address the audience directly. The effect is unsettling, especially given its Shakesperean implications. Macbeth, while brilliant, was also written 400 years ago. More to the point, Underwood’s asides cheapen the complexity of every narrative, serving little purpose beyond wrap beats … Spacey pandering to the camera, as if to inform viewers, “This is what happened. This is why it matters. This is what I plan on making happen next.”

It’s gross, is what it is, a laugh track for dramatic audiences, one that perennially pulls the plug out on suspense. And yet it comes as no surprise, given how desperately House of Cards wants to pass off schmaltz as clever. Every politician speaks in metaphors, every hustler cracks in lingo. Consider, if you will, this brief exchange from Season Two:

Raymond Tusk: I don’t blame you for wanting to keep your options open, but clearly you have bought the wrong insurance policy.

Remy Danton: Don’t shoot yourself in the foot like this. 

Raymond: Your foot. And you’re holding the gun. Now go someplace else to bleed.

Remy: You want to talk about blood? How much have you spilled in this war with Frank? All I’ve tried to do is keep the peace. You could’ve let him have the upper-hand. What would that’ve really cost you, other than your pride?

Raymond: Such a shame. You’ve just made 42 billion enemies, Remy, and some change.

Remy: 39 billion, Raymond. Your market capital’s shrinking. 

Holy Sorkin! It’s enough to put West Wing to shame.

The primary difference being that West Wing was a product of network television, and, as such, it lacked the critical cache of a series on Netflix. In fact, one might argue that had Orange Is The New Black originally been picked up via FOX, it’d be no more or less a phenomenon than, say, New Girl. If, on the other hand, Orange Is The New Black had originally gotten picked up by HBO … well, scratch that. Orange Is The New Black would never have gotten picked up by HBO. And therein lies the dividing line.

While Netflix has recently overtaken HBO in the constant battle for subscribers, the streaming service has yet to make its impact felt when it comes to marquee programming. Arrested Development? Brilliant, yet retread. Hemlock Grove? That’s a season full of Showtime. The good news: If Netflix programming continues to evolve at its current pace, it’ll more than likely rival AMC by 2017, setting up an all-or-nothing showdown with HBO in 2020.

But enough about that. Let’s get back to what makes House of Cards a worthwhile drama. In a word, it’s casting, which means a tip of the cap to Julie Schubert – an industry pro who’s assembled previous ensembles for Boardwalk Empire and The Departed (among others). As an apprentice to long-time casting director Juliet Taylor, Schubert knows what makes for trademark casting. While House of Cards lacks the sheer entertainment value of The WireBreaking BadThe Sopranos or Mad Men, the show’s ensemble falls dead even. In fact, House of Cards features no less than four minor actors who previously appeared on The Wire (i.e., Reg E. Cathey, Christopher Mann, Boris McGiver and Bruce Allen Dawson). Each of them solid, experienced, and available for scale.

One trademark of any great drama is knowing when to cut its losses. The standard formula: choose your weakest link and string that motherfucker up. Think of it as a necessary purging, like throwing dead weight over the bow. This is – quite literally – how The Sopranos solved its Pussy Bonpensiero problem; how Boardwalk Empire solved its Darmody problem. The Wire did away with several dead-end characters (including one portrayed by Michael B. Jordan), all en route to killing off its most beloved asset. David Simon, to his credit, sacrificed Stringer in the interest of narrative. That said, most shows don’t boast a bench that deep, and, as such, showrunners need to discriminate based on necessity. House of Cards made the appropriate decision knocking off Zoe Barnes during the beginning of Season Two. Kate Mara’s role had run its course. Nonetheless, one tends to wonder whether Barnes might be alive right now, had Mara’s sister been available for that role.

Regardless, this amounts to little more than bold conjecture, especially given the perverse nature we now know as House of Cards. Regardless of the obstacle, every plot point feels redundant – The President, the U.S. Senate, the entire Chinese Government … it doesn’t matter. Frank Underwood’s got them all under control. There’s no worthwhile threat, no one equal to be rival. None except for loyal squire, Douglas Stamper. And we now know how Season Two has treated him.

(House of Cards is currently streaming via Netflix.)