When Underwood is denied a promised cabinet spot by the incoming president, he deviously and deftly begins settling old scores. He is encouraged in his vicious Machiavellian campaign by his wife (Wright), the Lady MacBeth of Georgetown, and by his ruthless aide de hatchet (Philly native Michael Kelly).
House of Cards is based on the 1990 British mini-series of the same name, one of the most original and entertaining volumes in the Masterpiece Theater library. (There were two sequels also well worth seeking out: To Play the King and The Final Cut.) But this remake is adapted for the Beltway and updated for an age of IMs and 24-hour political punditry.
Spacey's character follows the penchant of the original's nefarious Parliamentarian, so exquisitely played by Ian Richardson: he will break off in the middle of a conversation to deliver acid-tipped observations directly to the camera.
The effect is devastating, like having George Burns play Iago.
At a state ceremony or a cocktail party, Underwood will keep up a running confidential commentary on the foibles of everyone in the room. Friend and foe, Frank despises them all.
It's a compelling performance by Spacey, smothered in a syrupy southern drawl. Watching him put the screws to a dissolute congressman from Philadelphia (Corey Stoll) is a master class in intimidation.
He's so adept at dissembling and manipulating that he can stab people in the back and have them thanking him profusely for the ventilation. The cynicism and malevolence of this character is breathtaking.
House of Cards is a challenging, fast-moving, grown-up drama. The first two episodes are directed with markedly bracing assurance by David Fincher ( The Social Network). Even the score by Jeff Beal is outstanding. And the series' use of D.C. as a backdrop is unparalleled.
There is a witticism often attributed to Otto von Bismarck: there are two things you never want to see being made - sausages and laws.
Legislation is certainly a squeamish process in House of Cards. But you won't be able to turn away.
Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tv.