THE FOLLOWING POST CONTAINS VIRTUALLY NO SPOILERS.
This month saw the online movie and TV streaming site Netflix take a step into the unknown. They commissioned, and on a single day in February released every episode of a 13-part drama, House of Cards, based upon the BBC’s 1990 series of the same name, itself adapted by Andrew Davies from Michael Dobbs’s novel.
Like its British namesake, Netflix’s House of Cards is a kind of quasi-Shakespearean political drama (including Fourth-Wall-Breaking asides to the audience), with the action transplanted from Westminster to Washington D.C. Our protagonist – and sort-of narrator – is Frances Underwood (Urquhart in the original), a scheming congressman and chief whip for the Democratic Party. Underwood (played in scenery-chewing mode by Kevin Spacey) is a master manipulator, a Machiavellian genius using everyone around him, from rookie congressmen to the US President himself, as his puppets and pawns.
In his schemes, he’s aided and abetted by wife Claire (Robin Wright), amoral Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) and an ambitious young reporter for the Washington Herald, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara).
The series’ chief writer is Beau Willimon, who penned George Clooney’s 2011 political drama The Ides of March, and it’s produced – and it’s opening episode directed by – David Fincher.
The original series was an instant classic, and Francis Urquhart (played so brilliantly by Ian Richardson) is one of the most – if not the most – memorable TV villains of the last 25 years, so it’s inevitable that here in the UK comparisons, often unfavourable, will be made between the two.
That said, most of those comparisons will be pointless. Many of the changes made in the transatlantic crossing were absolutely necessary. Washington D.C. does not look like Westminster; the rooms in which dodgy deals are made won’t be as claustrophobic or as gloomy as their UK counterparts, so of course the US version will look “more slick”. Also, there’s a kind of baroque camp in the UK House of Cards that – besides Spacey’s performance – is largely missing from the US version, but only because that sensibility doesn’t often translate well to US drama.
Importantly, the show’s producers have kept what were perhaps the two most successful ingredients in the original – its sociopath anti-hero, and his asides – and made them work afresh. There are points, about two thirds of the way through, when either the writers or directors seem to forget this device, and that’s when, regrettably, it feels most like something we’ve seen before, a kind of misanthropic re-imagining of The West Wing.
It’s to Aaron Sorkin’s long-running, much-loved liberal fairy tale (let’s face it, we needed Jed Bartlet during the dark days of Bush) that any remaining comparisons will be made, particularly given that producer Fincher worked with Sorkin on The Social Network. Sadly, the writing in House of Cards isn’t quite at that level. Willimon, despite a background in theatre, doesn’t have Sorkin’s rapid-fire wit, and neither he nor his team of writers ever really engages with the actual politics – the conflicting belief systems – that fuel so much of what happens on The Hill.
We’re told that the Democrats are in power, but really… they could just as easily be Republicans. And okay, perhaps this is just a cynical way of saying, “What’s the difference?” And perhaps the main focus of the show isn’t political ideology but political machinations, but there were similar problems with The Ides of March. I get that Willimon is more interested in the machinations than ideology, I even get that there are many working in D.C. who feel the same way; I just don’t quite buy that politicians would sit around talking about politics so much without any real questions of ideology surfacing along the way. The end result is a series of scripts that don’t always ring true and – when they do tackle anything with political heft – feel a little trite.
All this makes it sound as if I didn’t actually enjoy the series, but nothing could be further from the truth. The joy of watching a show like this on Netflix is that you can just lose yourself in it. The recent 6 part conspiracy drama Utopia was broadcast over 6 weeks by Channel 4, and I must admit that as gripping as it was, I struggled to keep up. Though we were given “previously on…” recaps at the beginning of each episode, there were simply too many characters and subplots for me to keep track of, given that seven days of watching and reading other things had fallen between each episode. Perhaps, I thought, it would have been better had Channel 4 broadcast the series over six consecutive nights.
I experienced no such difficulties with House of Cards. I started watching it last Saturday afternoon, and saw the final episode on Monday. While the dialogue may need tightening up a little, if there’s to be a second series, the story itself – much of it borrowed from the original – is gripping, and brilliantly layered. There is a kind of mid-series sag, particularly noticeable if you’re watching it in a marathon session, and I wondered why, given the freedom of a single-day release, Netflix chose to model it on the traditional US TV format of 13 episodes.
Still, this too is a minor complaint. The main reason for watching House of Cards, the one thing bound to keep people talking about it for some time yet, is its cast. Yes, Spacey is, as you may expect, excellent. The decision to make Underwood a Southerner struck me as curious, and Spacey’s accent wobbles a little in places, but he can steal any scene he’s in with a single glance.
Something that struck me, rewatching some of the 1990 series, was how much a tent pole Ian Richardson’s performance is. Oh, sure, the other actors are okay, but Richardson is the main attraction, and he runs away with not only any scene he’s in, but the whole bloody series. If the US version exceeds its forebear in anything, it’s in the quality of performances from its whole cast, in particular Robin Wright as Claire Underwood, and Corey Stoll, playing hapless, recovering alcoholic Peter Russo. The latter is an idealist US Representative who goes from Champion of the Common Man to semi-willing pawn faster than he can hoover up a line of coke, and Stoll (who played Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris) makes for a sympathetic tortured soul, just about the only one in a world full of liars, cheats and scoundrels!
Wright plays the Lady Macbeth to Underwood’s Thane of Cawdor, but there are so many subtle layers to the characterisation and Wright’s performance, I could happily have watched a whole series centred around her. The Underwoods’ is one of the most fascinating onscreen depictions of marriage I’ve seen in a very long time, and the one area where the writing is at its strongest.
Fans of the UK series may find the conclusion of episode 13 an anticlimax, lacking the original’s macabre punch, and I felt the writers could have crafted something with more impact or a bigger cliffhanger, but it certainly left me hungry for more. Let’s hope Netflix commissions another series and – if the standard here is anything to go by – some wholly original drama too!