Television series that charge brilliantly out of the gate with their pilot episodes are rare, and “House of Cards,” David Fincher and Netflix's paradigm-shifting entry into series television, is emphatically not one of those series.
The first episode of this cutting political drama is stagy, awkward and marred by an overabundance of exposition, but “House of Cards,” based on a 1990 BBC series, recovers quickly and decisively, and by its third episode this adaptation by Beau Willimon (“The Ides of March”) is on its way to possible greatness, a cinder-hearted cousin to “The West Wing.”
Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), is a Machiavellian congressman from South Carolina making a mad dash for political domination. After being denied ascension to the State Department by the new president (Michael Gill), he begins a series of power plays, enlisting a damaged congressman (Corey Stoll) to make some of his nastiest moves and driven young reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) to advance his agenda in the press.
Underwood's wife, Claire (Robin Wright), is similarly cutthroat: Her position as executive director of a clean water nonprofit masks a taste for political dark arts that rivals her husband.
In the pilot, Spacey spends much of his screen time addressing the camera and breaking the fourth wall with an ongoing lecture on the workings of Washington and his skill at manipulating its machinery, but he seems slightly bored at the outset, disengaged despite his obvious dominance in the story. But then Spacey hits his stride and gallops, Mara keeps pace with him, and so does “House of Cards,” which smartly de-emphasizes Spacey's asides as Underwood's merciless plan goes into motion. Stick with “House of Cards” after that stumbling start and it pays dividends.