"House of Cards" is irresistible entertainment

Yes, I know I am late to the "House of Cards" party. But I insist on celebrating the series, no matter how tardy I may be, because it is the kind of heroin TV, without the side effects, that justifies my Netflix subscription and makes me eager with anticipation for the next chapters.

Not since I tore through all the DVDs of "Breaking Bad" have I been so transfixed by a series centering on a profoundly amoral character (all right, Frank Underwood is more immoral). But "House of Cards" is addicting not just because of Kevin Spacey's beautifully ugly characterization but because so many of the supporting players -- most notably the female leads, Robin Wright and Kate Mara -- are so compelling.

I haven’t covered DC politics, although I know many who do. But I have covered capital politics and whether it’s Carson City or Washington, the combustible mixture of politics and sex, ambition and greed is the same all over, I’d guess.

The first 13 episodes (spoiler alerts!) were alternately infuriating and involving (sometimes within one chapter), making me want to rail against the portrayal of journalism (have we been seen as heroes in any movie since "All the President's Men"?) while marveling at the ravenous ambition of Zoe Barnes and prompting me to shake my head about Spacey's gradually worsening depredations while wondering if any real-life pol could be that depraved.

Much has and will be written about Spacey's performance and his generally irksome but occasionally satisfying asides to the camera. Spacey is a wonderful actor, whether he's playing the seemingly inept Virgil Kint (who is his alter ego again?) or the exquisitely tortured Lester Burnham. He is the heart of "House of Cards" -- or perhaps its heart of darkness -- and he seems to revel in the character and the portrayal.

But as I bask in the aftergow of finally finishing all baker's dozen episodes this weekend, I am struck by how the performance of Robin Wright is so central to the series and just how good she is by doing so little most of the time. The cold looks. The chilling words. The way she says the word, "Francis," as if she would just as willingly kiss him or knife him -- and she does both in the series.

Claire Underwood is as memorable an ice princess as I have seen on screen, equally as calculating, ruthless and ambitious as her husband. I have seen the inevitable comparisons to the Clintons, but that is an insult to the Underwoods. They are sui generis, a decadent duo that embodies all that is wrong with Washington in just the right way. They are a delight to watch on screen, whether in those late-night, ritualistic cigarette-sharing moments or when they talk about, in Wright's phrasing, what "we" have set out to accomplish.

And then there is Zoe, the third leg of this political, sexual and moral triangle. A reporter who offers herself, in every way, to a congressman, saying she will write what he wants her to before agreeing to literally get in bed with him. If Francis Underwood reinforces every negative stereotype people have about politicians, Zoe Barnes does the same for journalists.

She appears willing to do anything for a story, and she is a master manipulator of people, especially men. I will say up front I know of no female journalist I have met -- and I have known many good ones -- who would do close to what Barnes does in "House of Cards." But, on the other hand, her fearlessness and hunger are admirable journalistic traits, ones I have seen in others, but here they are misdirected because of a broken moral compass. You get the sense that despite how diminutive she is, Barnes could devour anyone, even the president of the United States (or the vice president, if that's all that's called for in the script).

Beyond the often brilliant dialogue, especially the words put in Spacey's mouth, that leaven the often unrealistic situations (why does the majority whip seem more powerful than the speaker or majority leader?) are the memorable supporting players. Michael Kelly as Underwood lieutenant Doug Stamper is especially intriguing. He appears to have absorbed his boss' reptilian cold-bloodedness, as if by osmosis, and his delivery is pitch perfect, almost a hiss as he commands others.

The one character I never liked was Peter Russo, the fated congressman who is an unwitting Underwood pawn. He at first seemed a caricature -- the womanzing, partying House member. And  his gradual dissolution was less tragic than characterized by unlikely catalysts, including his muteness in front of the BRAC commission on a facility in his district. If that actually happened, there would immediately be home-state journalists all over him, reporting on the scandalous abdication of duty. And the cliché of the office romance, the heart-of-gold staffer who believes in him? That I did not like.

But these are quibbles. "House of Cards" grabbed me right away and wouldn't let go, even when I nearly wanted to let go, yelling at Barnes for an egregious breach that would have outraged Ben Bradlee (or even Lou Grant), and keeping me at the edge of the cliff waiting for the next installments.

You have me, Francis, Claire and Zoe. I’m under your spell.