Read my full review: House of Cards Review: Frank Underwood’s Insatiable Hunger For Power
Welcome to the new age of television as House of Cards, the Kevin Spacey driven, $100 million dollar gamble, debuted on Netflix on February 1st. The show is a remake of an early 90s British mini-series of the same name starring Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart. In the remake, Spacey plays South Carolina congressman Francis (Frank) Underwood.
In the first episode, House of Cards sets up some of the same politician-reporter dynamics of the short-lived Political Animals on USA. But where Political Animals was entertaining but artificial, House of Cards is thoroughly enjoyable while retaining a level of realism unmatched by any other political drama on American television. You sense this is how Washington D.C. works in 2013, even if the drama is turned up a notch or two.
This hardwired venality is what makes this show so watchable. Here are the realities of political life as most of us suspect them to be. Ramped up, maybe, but still close enough to the truth. Men and women who may once have started out in politics with the intention of doing some good but have long since lost that idealism.
An effective storytelling device is maintained from the original British series when Spacey’s Underwood breaks the fourth wall, looks straight into the camera, and explains to the audience exactly what’s on his mind. And Spacey does this with great physical skill.
Netflix released the entire first season, 13 episodes, all at once. They also made the first episode available for free to non-subscribers. And all that is required to watch the remaining 12 episodes is to subscribe to Netflix for one month of streaming service. Not a bad deal given you can watch the entire first season of House of Cards along with anything else Netflix has to offer. Netflix’s goal is to be the online equal to HBO, offering quality original programming that drives subscriptions. But they paid a big price for their first high-profile scripted series. The quality is there. But is the audience?
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A dog gets hit by a car near his house in Washington and Congressman Frank Underwood goes outside to help. He kneels beside it. "Sssh," he whispers, "It’s OK." He then looks up and speaks direct to camera. "There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong and useless pain, the sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things." With that, he strangles the poor mutt. Even before the opening credits of the first episode, it’s clear that this US remake of House of Cards is going to be stylistically and amorally faithful to Andrew Davies’s 1990 adaptation of Michael Dobbs’s political thriller.
And why not? The original was doubly blessed, both with its timing as its first screening coincided with the dark arts of the Conservative leadership election following Maragaret Thatcher’s resignation, and in Ian Richardson giving the performance of his career as Tory grandee Francis – no one would have dared call him Frank – Urquhart. Which also makes it a very tough act to follow. Kevin Spacey is no slouch as an actor, but he sensibly does not bother to recreate Richardson’s performance. There is nothing patrician or menacingly camp about Spacey’s Underwood, while in Claire (Robin Wright) he even has a more prominent, much better and younger-looking wife than Urquhart. All that is retained is the pure essence of the unforgiving disappointment of the passed-over politician.
Nor is Kate Mara’s Zoe Barnes a straight copy of Susannah Harker’s Mattie. A fey, ingenue young woman reporter being misdirected into an exclusively man’s world was never going to cut it now. Barnes is a much more knowing, complicit character: a modern woman every bit as on the make as Underwood. She most definitely won’t be calling him Daddy. In one of her first scenes, she asks her editor for her own blog, telling him that print journalism is dead. She could almost be the voice of Netflix, which stumped up the estimated 0m production costs for House of Cards and has made all 13 episodes available at once, in a pre-emptive strike against the TV networks.
These differences aside – along with the obvious one of this series being set in Washington 2013 rather than Westminster 1990 – everything remains pretty much as was. On a promise to become the new US secretary of state after helping to mastermind Garrett Walker’s successful presidential election, Underwood finds himself squeezed into the White House margins, appointed the president’s whip in Congress in charge of supervising the new education bill. Just one shortish night of the soul later, accompanied by a sharp reminder from his wife to "man-up", and Underwood is ready to exact retribution. From then on, all you need do is sit back and admire.
It’s hard to shake off Richardson’s ghost entirely. His performance was so compelling that flashes of the original couldn’t not come back to mind at random moments, but as Spacey’s character takes shape so Richardson’s recedes, such that his occasional uninvited presence becomes more a comfort than a threat to the remake. And what the 2013 version of House of Cards lacks in novelty, it more than compensates for in subtlety. No need in Underwood’s world for recurring symbolic images of rats hustling around the dustbins. We now expect nothing less from our politicians.
This hardwired venality is what makes this show so watchable. Here are the realities of political life as most of us suspect them to be. Ramped up, maybe, but still close enough to the truth. Men and women who may once have started out in politics with the intention of doing some good but have long since lost that idealism. By the time they make it to Washington or Westminster, every politician has made too many unkept promises and stabbed too many people in the front not to be compromised. All that matters from there on is the pursuit of power. And House of Cards is as entertaining a vision as any of how most politicians would like to play politics if they thought they could get away with it.
Which just leaves the matter of whether House of Cards 2.0 dares to reuse one of the most famous lines in British television history. Lines that have become synonymous with political spin and have even been used in the House of Commons. You might think that. But I couldn’t possibly comment.
• House of Cards is available on Netflix
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