So help me, I almost gave up on House of Cards. After zipping through the first three or four episodes of Netflix's new 13-part, Americanized remake of the 1990 BBC miniseries about political intrigue, I figured I'd seen enough to cook up a reasonably brainy-sounding takedown, starting with how some of the supposedly sophisticated power plays executed by Kevin Spacey as scheming House Majority Whip Frank Underwood—a Democrat from South Carolina, and how likely is that in 2013?—would have left Machiavelli yawning at their crudeness in eighth grade. The idea that a single planted piece by a junior reporter could instantly vault someone into front-running contention for the job of Secretary of State had me groaning, and so on.
Then I realized I wanted to keep watching, which was annoying. Especially given today's ever increasing surfeit of programming options—gee, thanks for getting into the original-content game, Netflix—critics trying to keep up have every reason to say, "Got it. Next." On bad days, asking us what we watch for fun—well, except for Parks and Rec and cooking shows, of course—will win you a haunted stare, as if Winston Smith had been asked to name his favorite rat in 1984. But the hand that holds the remote (or, in this case, mouse) doesn't lie, and it kept clicking on "Next Episode." So I had to reevaluate my opinion of House of Cards in terms of its real pleasures, which are considerable.
No question, they start with Spacey himself, never a huge draw for me in his younger years. But not many actors have his instinct for how to play Washington operators as people exasperated by us civilians' clueless notions of good and evil as useful yardsticks of conduct, a gift recently on display in his expert work as Jack Abramoff in the late George Hickenlooper's too-little-seen Casino Jack (2010 and worth renting, FYI). As Frank Underwood, what he does best is act impatient during the moments that humanize the character; they're real enough, but not a priority. Since most actors live for the moments when they can sentimentalize whomever they're playing, that's a mark of unusual taste. To my at best semi-trained ear, even Spacey's Charleston accent ain't too bad.
Then there's the rest of the cast. However glad I am for her sake that she's no longer Robin Wright Penn—c'mon, would you wish that on anybody?—Robin Wright has usually struck me as capable at best, but midlife has done wonders for her. As Underwood's wife, who works the charitable-foundation side of the street and isn't averse to pooling her and her husband's resources—or, for that matter, undercutting him when it suits her—she's got a combination of social poise and emotional wariness that strikes me as just right. As Zoe, the ambitious journalist who ends up as the unruliest fly in Underwood's web—not least because she hopes it's the other way around—Kate Mara is so right for the role that I can't begin to guess whether she'd be able to play anything else. But my favorite—and how can he not be everybody's?—is Corey Stoll, whose Ernest Hemingway was the one live figure in the Madame-Tussaud's-for-idiots of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, as palooka Philly congressman turned Underwood-minted gubernatorial candidate Peter Russo. Stoll is one of those actors who can drive you crazy trying to figure out who he reminds you of until you catch on he doesn't remind you of anybody; he's something new.
What stops me from flipping for House of Cards outright is how often the show's idea of high-stakes D.C. intrigue—its subject, after all—is less clever and more hackneyed than it thinks it is. Yet that would bother me less if verisimilitude wasn't the series' most wrongheaded calling card. One reason I liked the BBC original was that nobody watching was under any illusion it was a realistic portrait of Parliament's workings; it was a deliberate, fun exaggeration, from Ian Richardson's silky malice in the leading role on down. There's an unresolved tension in the remake between the heightened melodrama most fans probably get off on and the solemn—and increasingly untenable—pretense that we're just seeing how Washington inside baseball really works. (One especially inane touch is the way real-world Beltway talking heads—George Stephanopoulos and Candy Crowley, among others—turn up occasionally to add "veracity"; they just call attention to the show's concocted streak instead.) Spacey's direct-to-the-camera monologues are enjoyable, but a bit awkward too, since nothing else in the overall tone justifies their theatricality.
Me, I keep wishing HoC's creators had pulled out the stops and gone for stylized flamboyance all the way. In dramatic terms, that would be more convincing than all the wasted attention that gets paid to keeping the storyline's hijinks superficially plausible. But every time Spacey seethes at his lessers or Stoll falls off the wagon again, I could also care less about my own cavils. The American version of HoC may have less style than the Brit original—or anyhow, the wrong kind of style, at least a lot of the time. But when it's good, it's got juicier meat on its bones.