“Power is a lot like real estate. It’s all about location, location, location. The closer you are to the source, the higher your property value.”
It’s not often I’m in a position to review an entire season of a show before most people have seen it; but thanks to Netflix’s innovative approach to their first original show, that’s precisely what I can do. House of Cards, an adaptation of the classic 1990 BBC production, is the online media group’s first attempt at original drama, and in an unprecedented step, they made the entire 13 episodes of the show’s first season available in one great lump, on 1st Feb.
Probably not too many people have done what I just have and spent the entire weekend watching the whole thing, so I’ll try and keep this as spoiler-free as possible. The fact that I wolfed it down at such a pace is fairly telling in itself; this is an addictive show. But how does it stack up against its respected original? Or indeed as a drama in its own right, from a media organisation taking its first steps into production?
The answer to both questions is, pretty well. House of Cards, the 1990 BBC production, wholly deserves its reputation. The twisty tale of a venal, Machiavellian Conservative Chief Whip who, passed over for promotion, contrives not only to destroy the ineffectual Prime Minister but actually to replace him, had the extraordinarily serendipitous good fortune to coincide with the real life toppling of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and her own replacement by the ineffectual John Major. The idea that secret Tory knives were being sharpened against this uncharismatic figure seemed none too far fetched, particularly when Major described three of his Cabinet as “bastards”.
The show also gave the role of a lifetime to Shakespearean actor Ian Richardson. As scheming Chief Whip Francis Urquhart, Richardson was given enough dialogue ammunition by writer Andrew Davies to chew up every scene he was in. Using the old-as-the-hills dramatic device of occasionally turning and talking directly to the audience, the show contrived to make the viewer complicit in Urquhart’s byzantine schemes, which ended up in treachery, political disgrace and even murder.
Fast forward 23 years, and the new House of Cards emerges into a vastly different political landscape. In 1990, we were just beginning to get used to the ideas that our elected officials might be, well, a bit dodgy. In 2013, after the decades of corruption exposed by (and sometimes embodied by) the press, it seems almost a given that, if you’re in office, you’re up to no good. The new show has to work that bit harder to be shocking when you automatically assume everyone in politics is on the take.
It also has to adapt to being American. This has two consequences. Firstly, the American political system is vastly different; you can’t just knife the leader in the back, take over the Party and become President from nowhere. And secondly, American television demands rather more than four hour long episodes in a season, diluting the intense, economical storytelling that characterised the original. But longer seasons have their benefits too, giving more time to flesh out the characters and, in a show like this, add layer upon layer to the basic political intrigue.
Said intrigue is carried out here by Kevin Spacey as House Majority Whip Frank Underwood, an intriguing variation on Richardson’s original Urquhart (whose name was obviously deemed too complex). While Urquhart was a haughty old-fashioned Tory from the rural shires, Underwood is from more humble beginnings. The son of a middling South Carolina peach farmer, he’s backstabbed his way into a position of some power in Congress. Like his British counterpart, when his party (intriguingly, the Democrats) win a general election, he’s more than a bit put out when he doesn’t get the promised position of Secretary of State. And so, as in the original, the scheming and manipulation begins.
This is the kind of character Kevin Spacey excels at. With his soft-spoken Southern drawl, Frank (only his wife calls him Francis) can seem as genial as you like. But that inner bastard is ready to leap out at a moment’s notice, and frequently does. We first encounter him, in a cold open to the first episode, killing a dog. OK, the dog’s just been hit by a car and is unlikely to survive; but Frank decides to put it out of its misery before its distraught owners can watch it die. "There are two kinds of pain," Frank explains. "The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain, the kind that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things. Moments like this require someone who will act, do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing."
Compassion? Of a sort that only Frank can employ. He’s not a monster; in fact he’s probably more sympathetic than his original British counterpart. But he’s just as goal-driven. Nothing, but nothing will get in the way of his revenge and his ambitions. But what are those ambitions? It takes thirteen blackmailing, seducing, corrupting episodes to find out. Along the way, Spacey makes this monster both loveable and hateable: a political JR Ewing for the modern age. Those sly asides to the camera are present and correct, not only involving us in his schemes but also helping us to keep track of what’s going on and why. And yes, he does use the original show’s catchphrase, but not often. When? I couldn’t possibly comment.
The length of the season allows his character to be explored more fully, and his shcemes have extra layers of complexity. Plans within plans: why is Frank so keen on supporting the President’s educational reform agenda? What interest can he have in furthering the career of substance-abusing Philadelphia Congressman Pete Russo (the rather hunky Corey Stoll, who spends a good amount of time in various states of undress)? And is he using his journalist protege / leak machine / shag Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), or is she using him?
Zoe takes the place of the original’s Mattie Storin, and like Underwood himself, inhabits a journalistic world that’s far dirtier than that of 1990. She’s no stranger to sleeping around the Capitol for a story, and neither are half her colleagues; hardly the thrilling flirtation with the dark side Mattie indulged in, more a matter of everyday business. But Zoe knows that Frank’s one of the biggest fish she can net, and grasps him with both hands. So to speak. And so the game of cat and mouse begins. But which is which?
Just as Zoe’s a more rounded character than the comparatively innocent Mattie, so is Frank’s wife. The original Elizabeth Urquhart, as played by the towering Diane Fletcher, functioned as a shadowy Lady Macbeth figure, clearly the inspiration behind – and control for – all her husband’s schemes. But for all Fletcher’s subtle performance, Elizabeth was given no more than suggestions of a character of her own.
Here, Frank is married to the more glamorous Claire (Robin Wright) a political animal in her own right. With her own prestigious charity group, the Clean Water Initiative, Claire is complicit in her husband’s schemes (well, some of them), but she’s not the power behind the throne. And she’s no more immune from being used and manipulated than anyone else, as she discovers through the course of the show. If her charity gets in the way of his schemes, she’ll get no special treatment.
Her relationship with Frank is (mostly) one of mutual respect, but she’s also distracted by her own lack of fulfilment. Frank has no doubts or shame about his corruption (he stops into a church at one point and spits contempt at both Heaven and Hell before maliciously blowing out all the prayer candles). But Claire is hitting the menopause, and increasingly bothered by her and Frank’s conscious decision never to have children (“I hate children,” mutters Frank at one point). She also has a Dark Past, with a rugged and pseudy British photographer who she’s had an on/off thing with over the years. Yes, it’s a little hackneyed, but as played by Wright, Claire becomes every bit as complex a character as Frank himself.
The length of the story allows for some amusing diversions too. Frank spends most of one episode visiting his alma mater (a fairly prestigious military school) for the dedication of the new library named after him, leading to much drunken hijinks with his old classmates in an episode that spends more time musing about the passage of time than politics. At the other end of the scale, another episode shows him simultaneously trying to quell a scandal in his home district centring on a peach-shaped water tower (disturbingly real), while simultaneously phoning in to the Capitol to negotiate education reform.
He’s not infallible either, leading to some laugh out loud moments such as his stumbling performance in a CNN debate when he accidentally replaces the word ‘education’ with ‘defecation’. His schemes sometimes seem not to work out either; but he’s nothing if not adaptable.
It’s an enthralling, twisting ride of Machiavellian scheming. Just as the original was the dark shadow to Yes Minister, this seems like the dark shadow to The West Wing. The choice of Democrats for Frank’s party affiliation is current, yes, but I can’t help but think it’s a middle finger to Jed Bartlet’s oh-so-Utopian administration too.
It’s not without its flaws; the need to provide a cliffhanger for the show’s second season means its carefully adapted story seems to run out of puff just when it’s gathering steam for a proper conclusion. Plainly, Netflix have their eye on adapting the later adventures of our own beloved Francis Urquhart. But how will they manage the next one, given that America doesn’t have a King? Or does it…