House of Cards
Available Friday at 3 a.m. ET on Netflix
Netflix decided to release the first 13 episodes of its new original series "House of Cards" all at one time on Feb. 1. Some people prefer streaming television over the real thing precisely because they can gorge themselves on huge helpings of their favorite programs. Given its relentless theme, "House of Cards" might go down better in smaller portions and thus be enjoyably prolonged. If the first two episodes are enough to judge by, it's unfortunate that some viewers may instead treat the series like a bag of M&Ms.
The Netflix drama, which stars Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and the luminous Corey Stoll, among others, is a riff on a 1990 British series of the same name. That one memorably featured Ian Richardson as an MP and Conservative whip whose plummy voice and silky manner hid monstrous political ambition and a diabolical skill at manipulation. It won't be topped.
Yet that was then and this is now and the politician on the make today is Mr. Spacey as Francis Underwood, a congressman from South Carolina. He's majority whip in a Democratic administration, but that's hardly relevant. Underwood is a pathological specimen who could be the wolf in sheep's clothing in any party. As the series opens, the man Underwood championed has just been elected president, and it's time for the reward for services rendered.
When he doesn't get the job of secretary of state, Underwood is enraged. But everything that happens in the rest of the series—which is the story of Underwood systematically eliminating every obstacle between him and the presidency—would not be possible without the congressman's other half. That is Ms. Wright as Claire Underwood, a short-haired blonde who manages to be masculine and demasculinizing at the same time.
Benign though they may seem—and their harmless air is what makes the Underwoods so effective as political plotters—this is a power couple with the same malignant chemistry as pairs of serial killers, where each needs the other in order to become lethal. "I love that woman," Francis Underwood says to the camera at one point about his wife. "I love her more than sharks love blood."
He talks to the camera a lot, in a signature style of the 1990 series. It is artifice that generally works well here to loosen our bearings. Although "House of Cards" is set in the present, it feels static, claustrophobic, as if everyone in it is trapped in a time and place and can't get out. Underwood's comments to the camera force us into bed with him as he lays waste to assorted political rivals or other hapless souls whose demise will further his advancement.
The pins begin falling early on, as Underwood sets in motion a master plan so complex and well-calibrated to take advantage of human nature that you abandon hope for his targets early on. They don't have to literally die. Underwood knows how to exploit even the good qualities in people to set them up for various kinds of manipulation and demolition.
Some will fall because they are honest; some will get into trouble, like the feisty newspaper blogger Zoe Barnes (played by Kate Mara), because they are so eager to get ahead. Others, like the womanizing, substance-abusing congressman Peter Russo (Mr. Stoll), will be blackmailed into service as Underwood's proxies.
There are annoying things about "House of Cards," which was written by Beau Willimon, among others, and whose executive producers include David Fincher (who also directed the first two episodes). Some of those things, like Mr. Spacey's mild but sometimes missing Carolina accent, don't matter. The ambitious female reporter, and a number of other elements here, are political-drama clichés—though, to be fair, some of this may be because the original "House of Cards" invented them.
Also distracting is the unrealistic patter of Washington corridors and newsrooms that exists only in the heads of screenwriters, and here includes lines such as "Make me squeal like Monica Lewinsky." The drumbeat of quips—"I never make big decisions so long after sunset and so far before dawn"—can become numbing after awhile.
Then again, to keep company with a devil, no matter how witty, is bound to be numbing. One must be anesthetized for the series to have its desired effect of making us root for Underwood or at least feel suspense until each of his miniplots pans out to successful competition.
Yet rapacious viewing will be numbing too, and not in a useful way. People who inhale too many episodes at once will have no time to savor scenes like the one of the ruthless Underwoods standing at an open window in their home, carefully blowing cigarette smoke into the night air lest it taint the indoors. Let it all sink in, and take you down slowly.
Fridays at 9 p.m. on PBS
If the marvelous "Shakespeare Uncovered" had been around when all of us were first introduced to the Bard, the world might be a better place, or at least a happier one. Here, in fresh and exciting ways, some ofShakespeare's greatest works are examined and, yes, revealed, in ways that will make all but the expert fan rush to read or see them again.
The three-part, six-hour PBS series picks up this week with Derek Jacobi investigating "Richard II," followed by Jeremy Irons exploring the worlds of "Henry IV" and "Henry V." We visit some historical sites where the plays were set, see clips of many different movie performances, and hear and watch contemporary actors wrestling with varied interpretations of the main characters. The hosts also look at Shakespeare's historical sources and the effect that his plays had on contemporary audiences and politics.
Was "Richard II," the king deposed by Henry Bolingbroke, simply an evil tyrant deluded by absolute power—600 years before Gadhafi or Saddam Hussein? Or did the ever-ambiguous Shakespeare mean for us to question how or whether appointed leaders can be brought down without tainting the usurper? As the many questions at the heart of each play become clear, we're treated to wonderful excursions, from Agincourt to the room where the real Henry IV died, surrounded by the initial "R," carved in wood all around, of the king he overthrew.
A descendant of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl Of Oxford, makes a charming and briefly persuasive appearance to argue for his ancestor as the true author of Shakespeare's plays. A polite Oxford professor then shoots this down with spectacular effect. Along with such entertainment, "Shakespeare Uncovered" is a royal feast. Only the worst kind of snob would deliberately pass it by.—N. deW. S.
A version of this article appeared February 1, 2013, on page D10 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Fantasies About Evil, Redux.