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house of cards blogNetflix kicks off its biggest year ever for original programming this week with Friday's debut of all 13 first-season episodes of the new drama series "House of Cards," based on the British drama of the same name that aired in the U.S. on PBS's "Masterpiece Theater."

"House of Cards" will be followed in April by set-in-Western Pa. (but filmed in Toronto) "Hemlock Grove" and then the return of "Arrested Development" in May.

Questions remain about how much cultural cachet a TV series that doesn't air on TV can truly have. How do you market a streaming series and grow fan fervor for it? HBO managed to do it for premium cable shows but the jury's still out on whether or not Netflix will be successful with limited marketing.

My colleague Maria Sciullo is writing about the Netflix phenomenon beginning in tomorrow's Mag & Movies and I took a look at the first two episodes of "House of Cards." My review after the jump. ...

Having never seen the British "House of Cards," I approached the Netflix Americanization with no expectations. (You can watch the first episode online for free.)

After a somewhat rocky start -- it takes a while to get accustomed to star Kevin Spacey's Southern drawl and his direct address to the camera in the middle of scenes -- "House of Cards" quickly became my favorite new series of 2013. 

Spacey stars as Francis Underwood, a Democratic congressman and House Majority Whip, who has been promised the the position of Secretary of State in a new Democratic administration. His dream of escaping Congress gets denied and the conniver comes up with a new plan for his ascendency and that of his equally ambitious wife, Claire (Robin Wright), who runs a Washington non-profit.

Among TV series from the recent past, "House of Cards" most closely resembles Starz's canceled "Boss, which was also a political drama with an anti-hero as its lead. But where Mayor Kane (Kelsey Grammer) on "Boss" had the added complication of a ticking-clock degenerative disease, Spacey's Underwood is simply a ruthless manipulator.

The first two episodes -- all that Netflix made available for review, even though all 13 episodes will be available for subscribers to view beginning Friday  -- were written by Beau Willimon and directed by David Fincher ("The Social Network") and they establish "House of Cards" as a smart, astute political thriller/soap worthy of comparison to the shows that air on HBO and Showtime.

With Underwood's manipulations and cadre of loyal enforcers, there's even a hint of Tony Soprano in some of his underhanded dealings, albeit without the added complexity of remorse that sometimes afflicted Tony and wife Carmela. (Claire shows a speck of remorse in episode two but it manifests itself with limited clarity.)

By the end of the first episode, Underwood is making deals with ambitious Washington Herald reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara, great-granddaughter of Steelers founder Art Rooney and sister of actress Rooney Mara) and helping a congressional colleague out of a jam only to demand absolute loyalty in exchange for his assistance.

In episode two, Underwood rhapsodizes about the difference between money and power to impressive effect: "Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starst falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn't see the difference."

Underwood's introduction in the series' first scene may turn off some viewers. He mercy kills a dog that's been hit by a car outside his brownstone. It took me a while to get beyond that and his Southern-accented asides to the camera.

In some scenes Underwood will predict to viewers what will happen and then when it comes to pass he turns his head to the camera with an expression of "told ya." It's distracting at first but the longer I watch "House of Cards," the more I accept this device. And the more I watch the show, the more I want to see. Bring on the binge viewing of episodes 3-13. (And, good news for those who enjoy it: Netflix ordered two seasons of "House of Cards" from the get-go so another 13 episodes should go into production.)

Watcha trailer below:

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