Today, Netflix released the full second season of its hit series "House of Cards." Oscar winner Kevin Spacey is back playing a murderous congressman who is climbing Washington's power structure. With the show, Netflix is reinventing TV online.

NPR television critic Eric Deggans says "House of Cards" is also redefining just how nasty an antihero can be.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: No TV character blends silky charm with mesmerizing menace like Congressman Frank Underwood, a Democrat from South Carolina. He can even make a promise to help a colleague sound like a veiled threat.


KEVIN SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood) Well, what if I suggested that you could serve in leadership this term to replace me as Whip?

MOLLY PARKER: (As Jacqueline Sharp) You're being tapped for VP?

SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood) Let's assume that's true.

PARKER: (As Jacqueline Sharp) That makes sense. But me as Whip?

SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood) Yes.

PARKER: (As Jacqueline Sharp) A junior congresswoman?

SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood) A universally admired incumbent who also happens to be a war veteran.

SIEGEL: Last year, when we first met Underwood, he was killing a dog that had just been hit by a car.


SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood) Moments like this require someone who will act and do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing. There. No more pain.

DEGGANS: Ruthless, chilling, and casual. Later, he turned that casual ruthlessness on a former ally - well, he was more like a patsy - who was going to reveal how Underwood broke the law. The patsy was an alcoholic, but Frank Underwood sweet-talked him into drinking while they sat in a parked car.


SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood) But I don't want you to feel any pain tonight. Here. You can start fresh tomorrow. Go ahead. I won't judge you. Hell, I'll even join you.

DEGGANS: Underwood lulled him to sleep.


SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood) Whatever it is you have to face tomorrow, you don't have to face it now. Right now, it's just you and me.

COREY STOLL: (As Peter Russo) I failed myself. I failed my family. I'm so tired.

SPACEY: (As Frank Underwood) You just close your eyes.

DEGGANS: Then Underwood started the car, closed the garage door, and walked away. That murder transformed Underwood from an antihero into a straight-up villain. TV has fixated on antiheroes for years. But the most popular ones have something that explains their bad behavior. "Breaking Bad's" meth-making high school teacher had cancer. On "The Sopranos," mob boss Tony Soprano felt like he had to justify his life of crime to his daughter.


JAMES GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Do you know that I love you?

JAMIE-LYNN SIGLER: (As Meadow Soprano) Yes. I know that you love me.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Everything I do and everything I've done and everything I will do, it's all for you and your brother. You know that.

DEGGANS: In "House of Cards'" first episode of the second season, Francis Underwood does something so awful, you'll wonder why you rooted for him in the first place. The show this season seems to dare us to stay invested in a lot of awful people because they're the only ones who matter. They scramble for money and power in a Washington that's strangely more functional than the real-life version. They actually pass education bills and vote on changing Social Security.

Like Shakespeare's "Richard III," "House of Cards" entices us with its lead character's bad deeds, then refuses to tell us how we should feel once we've seen them. But the scariest revelation of all is that we're so excited by this villain in the first place.

SIEGEL: Eric Deggans is NPR's TV critic. This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from