Listening to Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards,’’ you feel as though you’re hearing the devil himself, in his most seductive and shrewd incarnation. His words have a pretty Southern curl, and he is as graceful as a poet with every syllable he speaks. But his not-pretty message is: Hurt me and I will destroy you. Somehow, his pleasing cadence makes even his character’s mercy killing of an injured dog — which he does by hand — seem a little less brutal.
Spacey, as vengeful congressman Francis Underwood of South Carolina, is one of the many pleasures of this promising remake of the 1990 BBC series based on Michael Dobbs’s novels. He delivers a commanding performance as an elegant man who doesn’t take betrayal lying down and who plays members of the House like a scrappy con artist. When the president-elect, whom Underwood backed, reneges on his promise to make Underwood the secretary of state, Underwood begins to orchestrate a quiet, crafty retaliation. You sympathize with him, but you fear him, too. Hell hath no fury like a US congressman scorned.
It’s a perfect moment for this kind of political drama. “House of Cards’’ fits right in alongside “Lincoln,’’ “Game Change,’’ “Veep,’’ and the recently canceled “Boss’’ as a portrayal of the hidden manipulations, deals, and compromises of law-making. They are all stories that, unlike “The West Wing,’’ don’t quite romanticize what goes on behind the scenes in our government. And all of these shows fit alongside reality, which has given us too many examples of House brinkmanship in recent wranglings over the likes of the fiscal cliff. Underwood, who’s the majority whip in “House of Cards,’’ is planning to do to the president-elect what we’ve seen President Obama’s foes do to him — deplete his leverage. Underwood’s plan is to undermine the guy the president-elect is backing for secretary of state.
By the way, “House of Cards’’ is available only through Netflix, and it represents the streaming and DVD rental service’s most impressive effort yet to become a serious content provider. The series, whose entire first 13-episode season is available on Friday, is a quality effort on all levels: It’s beautifully filmed in and around Washington, D.C., it’s well-acted, and it’s cleverly written by Beau Willimon. Not least of all, the first two episodes were expertly directed by David Fincher, the man behind “The Social Network’’ and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.’’ The whole package comes off as a clear move to put Netflix’s original programming in the same category as that of HBO, FX, AMC, and Showtime. If “House of Cards’’ catches on, Netflix will have made a good start in that direction.
One of the distinctions of “House of Cards’’ is that Underwood’s marriage to Claire, who is played with icy mystery by Robin Wright, is strong. They are a loyal team, rather than another one of TV’s sham marriages in D.C. She is as calculating as he is, which we learn in a subplot that finds her bullying her way into power at a charity organization. When Underwood is down and out about losing the secretary of state job, Claire inspires him to rise up and conquer. “I love that woman,’’ Underwood says, “I love her more than sharks love blood.’’ They are made for each other.
Underwood’s scheme, which he invents during a dark night of the soul, includes a media component. He forms a useful connection with an ambitious young reporter at the fictional Washington Herald named Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), through whom he can leak material that will help his cause. Mara brings an unexpected naivete to her role, and she’s a welcome break in the cast of terminally jaded characters. That would be the flaw in “House of Cards’’: There aren’t many characters to like. They are fascinating, but chilly. Other figures on Underwood’s chessboard include an alcoholic, womanizing congressman (Corey Stoll), his own chief of staff (Michael Kelly), and the president’s chief of staff (Sakina Jaffrey).
The show, though, is really all about Spacey, who manages to make one of the most difficult of theatrical tricks work well. Occasionally, the script has Underwood break the fourth wall to talk directly to us, turning away from the action to share his philosophies and opinions. Spacey uses the technique to drive home Underwood’s imposing confidence and his wry, deadpan humor. He makes it seem as though Underwood is the kind of man who likes the sound of his own voice, who always imagines himself as the star of his own movie.