House of Cards–Could I possibly comment?

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.”

HoCFrank

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…

SOPA–Free Speech Vs Profit

ScreenShot002

So, it looks like yesterday’s internet protests by the likes of Reddit and Wikipedia may be having an effect, as US representatives back away from supporting the controversial SOPA and PIPA bills in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The White House is said to be looking dimly at the legislation. But we shouldn’t get complacent – much as I want to like Barack Obama as a President, he does have something of a history of doing the opposite to what he’s publicly said. Just ask the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay.

So what’s the problem with these bills? Ostensibly, their supporters claim, their purpose is to stop those dastardly pirates from ‘stealing’ copyrighted material such as music, films or TV shows, thus depriving the poor, starving artists like Bono and Steven Spielberg from their pittance of a living wage.

Obviously I’m being flippant – piracy is an issue, but this isn’t the right way to deal with it. The various techies opposed to the legislation point out that this is a sledgehammer to crack a nut; when you’ve used it, you won’t have any nut left to eat anyway. The bills would provide the US federal government (and its ever-attentive corporate lobbyists) with a legal mandate to force websites to remove apparently copyright-violating material, without any recourse to argument, or face having their sites shut down by law.

This is plainly not a transparent process, much like the UK’s ‘Control Orders’, which have frequently allowed the detention without trial of ‘terror suspects’ without giving them any knowledge of the supposed case against them. But it’s not just the lack of an ability to challenge the rulings which make SOPA and PIPA so disturbing. It’s the fact that it gives the US government legal authority to shut down websites, in direct contravention of the Constitution’s First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech.

The United States paints itself as the standard bearer for democracy. And yet these bills allow, in the name of monetary profit, the same kind of internet censorship regularly practised in repressive dictatorships like Syria, Iran and China. The legislation is (presumably intentionally) so loosely worded as to effectively allow the federal government to use it as a pretext to censor virtually anything. And not just in the US – given the internet’s global reach, they’re attempting to extend their legal control beyond their borders and across the entire world. Think that’s an impossible challenge? Tell that to 23 year old Richard O’Dwyer, shortly to be extradited for trial from the UK to the US for hosting a site which linked to illegal downloads, despite not having broken any law in the country of which he is a citizen.

That also highlights the ridiculous nature of the UK/US extradition treaty, but that’s an argument for another time. Suffice to say, the US has similar extradition treaties with numerous other countries. If any person has posted anything the loosely worded legislation prohibits, on any website at any time and in any country, not only could said website be removed from existence, but the person concerned could find themselves locked up. As a friend of mine on Facebook put it, if you upload a Michael Jackson song, you could face up to five years in prison – one year longer than the doctor who killed him.

“Ah, but,” supporters of the bill say, “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve nothing to fear.” But who’s to say what you’ve posted is ‘wrong’? The government of course, with the helpful advice of their corporate lobbyists. You might be surprised how easy it is to infringe the labyrinthine intellectual property laws – just ask Lamar Smith, the Republican Congressman who actually wrote SOPA. His campaign website has been shown to use stock images from a photographic library for which he or his organisation never paid. They’re barely visible, but they’re there. In the unfortunate event that these bills pass into law, he could well find himself one of the first to be prosecuted.

This leads into the popular perception that this is a solution being proposed by befuddled, elderly politicians and media moguls who have no clue about the technical intricacies of how the internet actually works, and are unaware of any potential unintended consequences. I’m not so sure. As Dan Gillmor argued, even if these people are really that dumb, their advisers most surely are not. The people agitating to get this draconian legislation passed must be well aware of its potential for totalitarian suppression of any dissent.

And then there’s the ridiculous binary argument that if you oppose SOPA, you must be in favour of untrammelled piracy. Well, aside from the fact that piracy always has existed and likely always will, this is not the way to go about stopping it. Nothing has ever stopped it, and the kind of totalitarian control this legislation advocates is certainly not going to. All it will do will be to make ordinary people suffer the consequences of lessening profits for companies, to the advantage of a censorship-hungry state.

So who are the people who want this? Well, inevitably it started with the Recording Industry Association of America, and the Motion Picture Association of America were quick to jump aboard a ship that was ‘hunting pirates’. These guys have been ineffectually playing catch-up since 1999, when Napster’s file sharing innovation created a seismic shift in the way entertainment was distributed. Suddenly, it was possible to get your hands on music – and later films and TV shows – without actually paying for it. And when corporations are deprived of profit, they get angry.

Of course, Napster was quickly stamped out. But the idea had taken hold, and multitudes of file sharing websites, in multitudes of countries, sprang up to take its place. A sea change had occurred, and suddenly an industry that had held entertainment in a dollar-squeezing stranglehold for the better part of a century was being rendered impotent. And worse, less profitable.

But is this, in itself, so bad? Record companies, film studios and TV producers would say yes. However, it’s worth looking a bit at the history of profit from entertainment; when you do, what you see is a redressing of the balance that existed prior to the monetisation created by the advent of recording what entertains us.

Before CDs, before vinyl, even before wax cylinders, there was still music. And musicians earned their living by playing music live. Your entertainment was a transient thing; in order to experience it again, you had to pay the musician to play it again. Most, if not all, of the money therefore went directly to the musicians themselves, and they in turn actually had to work to earn it.

But at the tail end of the 19th century, recording devices were invented, and suddenly you could listen to one of those transient performances as many times as you liked, without having to pay the musicians again. Naturally, the musicians weren’t too happy about this, and recording companies came into existence. They provided the technical means by which the music could be reproduced, and they, along with the new figure of the ‘agent’ made sure that musicians were recompensed for the loss of earnings caused by no longer having to repeat their performances so frequently.

Not so bad, surely? But fast forward a hundred years or so, and record companies are making vast sums of money, with an entire industry of many thousands most of whom have nothing to do with actually creating the music. Sure, there are musicians who, as a result of record sales, became phenomenally rich – Elvis, Frank Sinatra, U2 etc. But however much money they got, you can bet the record companies got more. And for the vast majority of musicians, record companies and agents ended up netting far more from their work than they ever would. David Bowie may be an industry titan these days, but in his early years apparently made the disastrous decision to allow his manager to control the rights to his songs; with the result that he was virtually penniless by 1980 despite his records still selling by the bucketload.

Piracy, in the form of file sharing, undoubtedly does deprive artists of revenue. But not half so much revenue as it deprives record companies of. And pragmatically, it’s a shift in the way entertainment makes money that cannot be reversed – no matter how much the RIAA tries to clobber it into submission with insanely draconian laws like SOPA. The music industry is changing, and cannier musicians appreciate this. Recorded music will never go away, but downloading can be, and has been, monetised with reasonable efficiency. The problem of ‘piracy’ will never go away either – remember the ‘Home Taping is Killing Music’ campaign in the 80s? It wasn’t killing music then, and neither is file sharing now.

Instead, the future of music may be back where it began; in live shows, with musicians entertaining their fans in person. But there are other ways to use the new mould to musicians’ advantage. Radiohead famously self-released their last two albums digitally, allowing fans to set their own price for the first one. Canadian singer-songwriter Jane Siberry does the same thing, and goes further; her website allows fans to download (at any cost or none) her entire back catalogue, going back to her first album from 1981.

The record industry, of course, hates this – because they make no money out of it. Only the musicians do. Many musicians – including the aforementioned Bowie – recognise the change that has taken place, and are moving on. Record companies are not – hence the arrival of mad schemes like SOPA, which try desperately to cling on to an outdated business model and, in the process, allow a supposedly democratic country an unprecedented level of global control of free speech. Profiteers and political control freaks – are these really the people we want policing everything we say?

As of now, it’s looking less likely that this legislation will be passed. A grassroots protest of actual democracy on the internet has made plenty of US lawmakers step back and think. But as I said at the outset, the bills are far from dead, and Lamar Smith – that dirty ol’ copyright thief – has pledged to keep on fighting for them. This struggle is far from over as a result of one day of mass protest – and in that spirit, I hope Jimmy Wales won’t mind me reproducing his Wikipedia front page from yesterday. To quote Bertolt Brecht, “Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”