Nathaniel Bell for Netflix
Tom Gliatto
February 14, 2014 02:00 PM

Politics, as the saying goes, is the art of the possible, the attainable, but cable shows have to aim and hit higher than that – especially if they star Kevin Spacey and happen to be season 2 of House of Cards.

The political melodrama that launched original programming on the House of Netflix is back – all 13 episodes are available Friday – but the first four episodes made available for review suggest that show is off its game, at least initially. And the game is everything here.

Oh, before we get started: Netflix has been very concerned about spoilers, and with good reason. There’s at least one thwopping surprise, and you’ll want it to fall on you like an angrily resistant turkey dropped unsuspectingly on your head. So those odd crackles and thumps you hear will be me beating about the bush.

Spacey, as Francis Underwood, a murderous aspirant to the Oval Office, still pursues his malevolent agenda. And he is succeeding. But every secret crime and every step up the ladder of power breeds him more enemies and increases the chance that some small particle of evidence will bring him down. And in this modern age of surveillance and technology, very, very small particles of evidence can prove resistant to elimination.

If Nixon were still alive and compiling his enemies’ list, he would be scrolling Twitter and maybe even Pinterest in a fever of hate.

Spacey plays Underwood with a wonderful surface crispness – he’s a pie with a restless crowd of blackbirds inside. If you’ve seen the original British House of Cards, you may find yourself wishing occasionally that Spacey had some of Ian Richardson’s pleasurable snap and arch humor. On the other hand, that may be the same as wishing Spacey would just go ahead and ham it up, and he seems to be avoiding that scrupulously: He wants to be a complete villain, also a complete human. He is not going to be twirling his mustache anytime soon.

Besides, he doesn’t have one.

RELATED: Kevin Spacey Says Political Insiders Call House of Cards ’99 Percent True’

Robin Wright, as Underwood’s wife, Claire, is his perfect partner in cunning: Every move is executed with exquisite poise and control. (If Claire ever appears ruffled, however remotely, we wonder if this too is calculation – feint and counterfeit.) Wright may even be better than Spacey, who often confides his motives to the camera. Wright is closed off and close to inscrutable – and that inscrutability ultimately makes Claire more fascinating and, in the long run, possibly more powerful.

So far, so good. The problem is that the larger framework, of Underwood’s enemies and rivals dealing and double-dealing in Washington, D.C., is underdeveloped. The Underwoods’ rise needs to play out against adversaries desperate to ruin them and with enough brains to pull it off. So far just about everyone in the nation’s capital – except Molly Parker, playing a protégée eager for Underwood’s political tutelage – is a fool. (Well, you answer, tell us something we don’t already know.)

The Underwoods are great company, but they’ve got the bowling alley to themselves. Everyone else is a pin. Any great political couple should have a vast conspiracy, whether rightwing or left, to bring out the best in themselves.

The entire 13-hour arc may repair all this. We’ll find out.

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