House of Cards begins with a bang, followed immediately by a whimper. A hit-and-run has broken the smug, moneyed calm of an immaculate Georgetown street; an unseen dog lies on the curb, dying. From the low POV of the expiring pooch we see Kevin Spacey, natty in a tuxedo, emerge from a townhouse and address the camera. "There are two kinds of pain," he intones, fiddling with his cuff buttons. "The kind that makes you strong, and useless pain." Spacey's character, South Carolina Congressman Frank Underwood, has no time for the latter. We know this because he tells us directly: He's the rare sort of man willing to act, to "do the unpopular thing, the necessary thing." We also know it because in the midst of this monologue, he kneels and calmly smothers the dog to death with his bare hands.
As far as introductions go, it's a memorable one. But then Cards was constructed specifically to make a big impression. An adaptation of the highly regarded 1990 BBC miniseries of the same name, the project is the first original series to be bankrolled by Netflix. And, in order to draw your attention from midnight binge streams of Say Yes to the Dress and Cake Boss, the former envelope company backed up the Brinks truck to secure top-flight talent, including Spacey and executive producer David Fincher, who directed the first two episodes. Like a fish sidling up to a poker table full of whales, Netflix also had to pay a premium to snatch the project away from more established content farms like HBO and Showtime; it did so by guaranteeing, sight unseen, 26 episodes, spread out over two seasons, at a cost of over $100 million. (Netflix isn't exactly NPR, but it's hard not to feel like I had some financial stake in all this by letting those Eric Rohmer DVDs collect dust on my coffee table for the better part of 2010.) Beau Willimon, the one-time Howard Dean aide who transformed that idealism-crushing experience into a highly regarded play ("Farragut North" which was later Clooney-ized into the film The Ides of March), was drafted to Americanize the story of a scheming government minister who will stop at nothing to achieve power. Anyone who's glanced at Politico.com over the past four years — or watched The Ides of March on Netflix — could tell you that it can't have been too taxing an endeavor. The cynical Willimon probably had to resist the urge to have Underwood strangle a bald eagle.