"I have no patience for useless things." The Machiavellian politician making this pronouncement, in the sinister opening scene of Netflix's instantly gripping shot-across-the-bow miniseries House of Cards, is Francis Underwood (a perfectly reptilian Kevin Spacey). On the surface, he's a team player, a powerful House of Representatives leader in the cynical snake pit of Washington, D.C. The conceit of House of Cards, as it was in the brilliant Emmy-winning 1990 British classic this is based on (first seen in the U.S. on Masterpiece Theater), takes us behind Underwood's mask to reveal the manipulative monster within, a voracious tyrant who doesn't suffer fools gladly and takes no prisoners in his predatory pursuit of power.
Netflix believes its audience is similarly impatient. Impatient enough to potentially consume 13 straight hours of political intrigue, all of which will be available to subscribers on Friday. No waiting a week, or even a minute, for the next episode, like on that useless (in the world according to Netflix) dinosaur model of over-the-air, or even pay cable, first-run TV. It's a revolutionary way of distributing expensive programming — Cards comes with a price tag reported to be $100 million — catering to the so-called "binge viewer," although Netflix doesn't really care how quickly or when you watch as long as you sign up and make this investment worth their while.
And is House of Cards worth your while? Absolutely, even if you're a connoisseur of the original, the entire trilogy of which is released on DVD/Blu-ray next Tuesday, which I recommend even more highly — although I'll report back later once I see all 12 hours of the new Cards, which may not be until after this busy Super Bowl weekend. (Netflix only made the first two hours, directed by David Fincher, available for advance review.)
Taking over the role indelibly played in the original by the late Ian Richardson, whose name of Francis Urquhart had the same tell-all "F.U." initials as Underwood, Spacey adopts a maliciously honeyed Southern drawl, oozing arrogant contempt only we are truly privy to as he delivers commentary directly to the viewer in the manner of a classic Shakespearean villain. His hubris is chilling yet amusing, and he's well matched by the icy resolve of his Lady Macbeth wife Claire (a nicely restrained Robin Wright), who runs a charity with a brutally iron fist.
Most everyone is a user in this vibrantly filmed, sharply written adaptation (by Ides of March's Beau Willimon), including a hungry young journalist (Kate Mara) all too willing to become Underwood's pawn if it advances her own career, ethics be damned. Underwood has good reason to need such a tool. Having been passed over by the new president-elect for a key cabinet post, seething with rage over his derailed entitlement, he plots a course of revenge to collapse the new administration like a... you get the picture.
The first two hours are sleek, dark fun, and it remains to be seen if a 13-hour orgy is too much of an addictive thing. (The good news: You can watch at your own pace, but be warned: If this tracks the plot of the original series, there are major spoilers ahead.) Though Netflix may be new to the game of original production, nothing about House of Cards feels amateur in appeal. It's as deluxe as anything you'd find on HBO, Showtime, FX, AMC, to name a few of Netflix's cutting-edge competitors. So what if it's not a breakthrough as drama — that happened back in 1990, when the original set a new high bar for Masterpiece. This is a fascinating experiment that feels like first-rate TV, and for subscribers old and (I'm betting quite a few) new, Cards is a great deal.
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GAME ON: Dwarfing Netflix's gambit in terms of pop-culture impact this weekend is CBS' day-long wallow in consumer culture and sports spectacle known as Sunday's Super Bowl XLVII. The festivities from New Orleans begin early, with Saturday's prime-time 2nd Annual NFL Honors (9/8c) ceremony, and Sunday's main event gets underway with seven hours of pre-game coverage, including a musical salute to the host city, New Orleans: Let the Good Times Roll (noon/11c), hosted by Wynton Marsalis. Hours of football analysis and features will be interrupted on occasion by musical performances from Matchbox Twenty and OneRepublic, and at 4:30/3:30c, anchorman Scott Pelley interviews President Obama live from the White House. Alicia Keys sings the national anthem before the game, Beyoncé promises no lip-syncing during the half-time performance, and after the game and the flurry of high-priced advertising that sponsors hope we'll all be talking about on Monday, CBS exposes its new Sherlock Holmes drama Elementary to its biggest audience ever. This special episode features Terry Kinney as the guest villain, and Covert Affairs' Kari Matchett as an FBI profiler tagging along with a most unwilling Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller). If you still have energy after all of that, Craig Ferguson obliges with a Super Bowl edition of The Late Late Show, on location with guests including Neil Patrick Harris and Steve Carell.
MEANWHILE... Some selected highlights from the rest of the weekend. ... Some might be tempted to exclaim "Great Caesar's Buns!" as a very randy Julius Caesar (Todd Lasance) arrives on Starz' bloody Spartacus: War of the Damned (Friday, 9/8c). The future emperor joins his fierce reputation and name to Crassus' fortune to take down Spartacus (Liam McIntire), who's busy invading a walled city... Having just been renewed for a second season, Cinemax's Banshee (Friday, 10/9c) reaches new heights of hysterical mayhem in an episode that begins with Lucas (Antony Starr) in criminal mode, fighting off panic attacks as he flees a botched robbery, then shifting to lawman duties as he arrests town power broker Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomson), but not without violent incident. "Never a dull moment," Lucas muses, and he's right. ... Most Sunday shows are taking Super Bowl Sunday off, but not HBO — which is giving fans of Girls and Enlightened a second opportunity to catch the new episodes, with a special night-earlier airing Saturday at 10:05/9:05c. ... And in the wake of last week's tragedy, PBS' Downton Abbey(check tvguide.com listings) forges onward, though as the Dowager Countess rightly observes, "Grief makes one so terribly tired." Keep an eye on Allen Leech as [Retroactive Spoiler Alert] the new widower Branson, whose role on the show becomes much more interesting, and the actor one of the SAG-honored ensemble's most appealing. Should you miss Downton amid the football frenzy, most PBS stations repeat the episode the following Sunday in front of the new installment.