"House of Cards" debuted Friday as an object of intense fascination. Anticipation has been high, not just for its steamy look at Beltway politics or the A-list cast the boasts Kevin Spacey, but because of its decision to launch on Netflix's streaming service instead of a pedigreed cable network like HBO — and to launch the entire 13-episode season in one binge-worthy gulp.
For the most part, the reviews have been sterling — good news for Netflix and the show's producers, who are betting a reported $100 million on the series.
The hope is that the pricey show will allow the streaming service to launch a slate of original programming to rival anything currently broadcast on the tube.
Already in the works are a re-launch of Fox's "Arrested Development" series and "Hemlock Grove," produced by "Hostel's" Eli Roth.
As for "House of Cards," in addition to Spacey, the series was produced by David Fincher, who also directs the pilot, and co-stars Robin Wright. It is based on a BBC mini-series of the same name.
In the Los Angeles Times, Mary McNamara predicted that "House of Cards" could become the first non-televised series to score with Emmy voters. She hailed Spacey's performance as a venal politician seeking revenge on the president of the United States after getting passed over for Secretary of State, but did say that the rest of the series does not quite rise to his level.
Still, McNamara implied that the series could be a game changer for the service, writing, "…just as 'The Sopranos' turned HBO into a game-changer and 'Mad Men' re-invented AMC, 'House of Cards' makes Netflix an undisputed player in serialized drama."
For Robert Bianco of USA Today, that $100 million was money well-spent. The TV sage said in a glowing review, that "House of Cards" is an appointment watching event to rival small-screen hits like "Downton Abbey."
"As if TV executives didn't have enough to worry about," Bianco wrote. "They already face an overcrowded field of competitors for the scripted-programming audience, with new entrants seeming to arrive on a daily basis. And now comes a well-funded challenge from Netflix, jumping into the fray with 'House of Cards' — and landing right near the top."
In the Guardian, John Crace said that while the new take on "House of Cards" does not entirely banish the memory of the BBC original, the series does successfully import the tale of political intrigue from Westminster to Washington.
Crace also said that Spacey's take on the central character rivals that of Ian Richardson, the late English actor who served as the charming and amoral center of the original show.
"It's hard to shake off Richardson's ghost entirely," Crace writes. "His performance was so compelling that flashes of the original couldn't not come back to mind at random moments, but as Spacey's character takes shape so Richardson's recedes, such that his occasional uninvited presence becomes more a comfort than a threat to the remake. And what the 2013 version of House of Cards lacks in novelty, it more than compensates for in subtlety."
For Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker, "House of Cards" presents Spacey the way audiences love him — at his craftiest. It's a performance the critic compares to Spacey's villainous high-water marks in the likes of "Seven" and "The Usual Suspects."
However, Tucker also credited Fincher with the show's success.
"Fincher’s stamp is all over this production, the way (he did in feature films such as Zodiac, Fight Club and Seven), his camera conveys a sense of firm gravity even as it glides smoothly across a scene, an all-seeing, all-knowing instrument of knowledge and drama," Tucker wrote.
Alessandra Stanley offered a more tentative endorsement of the show. In the New York Times, she writes that the most revolutionary aspect of its dramatization of the corrosive nature of power is its delivery mechanism, not its plot.
"'House of Cards,' however, is probably seen best one episode at a time," Stanley wrote. "It’s a delicious immorality play with an excellent cast, but the tempo is slow and oddly ponderous — a romp slowed down to a dirge."
Maybe it was the proximity to the Potomac, but the Washington Post was not ready cast its vote for "House of Cards." Critic Hank Stuever writes that despite the expense and the big-names, Netflix fell short of its ambitions to shake up television.
"'House of Cards' is by no means a total disaster," he wrote. "It’s pretty to look at, and, if your day has not already been consumed with Type A personalities inside the Beltway, then it may fall well within your definition of entertainment. If, on the other hand, you’ve got even the slightest case of Washington fatigue, then you should run screaming. (I mean, after a day of Chuck Hagel confirmation grillings, are you sure you want to spend your weekend curled up with this?)"