Everybody wants to poke a finger into Psycho, trying to reimagine the creepy recipe that officially put calling your mom “Mother” out of style. Some of the prequels, sequels, and spin-offs (including 1987’s Bates Motel) were OK, some were bad, and all of them seemed to warn “Don’t mess with Hitchcock.” Something about the original film invites audiences to B.S. forever about Freudian themes and shower trivia, and I guess if we’re so reluctant to let go of it, it makes sense that we keep trying to stick it in a petri dish. We have an innate preoccupation with diagnosing evil: Is it innate? Can it be caused? And which is worse? Anthony Perkins’s Norman was tragically fascinating, almost sympathetic. As “Mother,” he’s a monster; as Norman, his impulses are to prevent his dark side from taking over. The idea that he was once somehow pristine, or at least only as garden-variety creepy as anyone else, and became damaged by a platonic (or otherwise) dysfunctional love tango with his mother is an intriguing knot to untangle.
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.
Kyle Killen has already survived a crash worse than the one that begins tonight’s premiere of Awake. The thirtysomething screenwriter made jaded critics swoon with his ambitious double-life con-man show Lone Star back in 2010, but the complex drama couldn’t attract enough viewers to make it viable on Fox. Instead, Killen’s attempt to cram twisty strands of cable DNA into a pleasing network package lasted about as long as shirt-averse star James Wolk would in the real-life Texas sun. Despite all the hype and praise, Lone Star wound up with as many episodes as Wolk’s Robert Allen had identities: two. Call it noble or call it foolhardy, Killen’s gambit was indisputably a failure.