House of Cards arrives on our TVs, and tablets, and laptops with a huge weight of expectation. Heralded in some quarters as ‘the future of television’, it is part of a risky gamble that may be the biggest shake-up to our TV consuming habits for years.
Artistically, it bears a lot of responsibility too. The original series on which it is based remains beloved and oft quoted over two decades after it was made. Furthermore, to truly succeed, the show has sought to place itself among the greats of modern American television, The Sopranos, The Wire, and The West Wing. So, no pressure then.
Despite these obvious touchstones, it is important to judge the show on its own merits. A great deal of creative work has gone into it, and if it is going to sustain several seasons, it needs to be able to stand up in its own right.
The good news is that it does do just that. Creatively speaking, the show is a success. Sensibly opting to take the original as merely the thinnest of templates, it establishes its own world, and its own dramatic dynamic from the very first episode.
The story arc borrows from the original, but again in the lightest of ways. House Majority Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is passed over for promotion to Secretary of State and decides to exact his revenge slowly. Conspiring with his wife Claire and his loyal Chief of Staff, Tim Stamper, Underwood seeks to undermine the new President while setting out on his own path to power.
That it won’t be a pretty journey is made obvious from the outset. The original show made use of images of rats, to show how dirty and corrupted the whole business was. The new show places constant animal metaphors in Underwood’s mouth. Frank’s fellow politicians are either ‘sheep’ or ‘wolves’, which is hardly an original comparison, but he doesn’t stop there. He declares that he loves his wife ‘like a shark loves blood’. It’s a rather grim simile that captures some of the oddness of their relationship. It’s not a marriage everyone would recognise, but they are supportive of one another, each driving the other into pursuing a shared goal of power. Meanwhile. Frank’s taste for ribs, which he eats for breakfast, provides a wonderfully visceral image of the man himself.
Spacey is in his element, clearly thrilled by such a meaty role. His asides to camera (another gift from the original) are delivered with a slightly heavier South Carolinan drawl than he uses when talking to other characters. It’s tempting to take this as a sign that he’s offering the viewer a glimpse of the real him, but given who he is, it’s best not to trust him too much.
In parts, the show exceeds the original, especially in the treatment of supporting characters. With more hours to fill, the writers have wisely opted to give them more to do. Each one is capable of sustain their own story arc in support of the show’s main plot.
Top of the list is Robin Wright as Claire Underwood. She is a far more nuanced than Elizabeth Urquhart, more richly characterised and she excites more of the viewer’s sympathy. She continues the Lady Macbeth template, but adds more humanity to it. With her own career connected to, but separate from her husband’s, Claire opens the story up beyond the corridors of Capitol Hill and the show is much stronger for it.
Peter Russo, a hapless Congressman captured by Underwood for use as a pawn is equally well shaded. He’s given a backstory sufficient to explain his dependency on Underwood, but with enough intelligence to make a plausible, if weak, politician.
Kate Mara’s Zoe Barnes is the replacement for the original’s Mattie Storin, and her role allows the show to expand its focus onto the changing media landscape where it really has some fun.
Far more aware of the power of blogs and social media than her older colleagues, Barnes uses this knowledge to jostle her way to the top of her profession, unwittingly mirroring Frank in the process. Given a stronger story arc than Storin, she does far more than merely trail after Frank and pin all her ambitions on him. It’s a refreshing update that brings the story into the twenty-first century.
The media polemic is a little clumsy, essentially saying ‘old media is trailing behind new media and you ignore social media at your peril’, and it’s difficult to believe that journalists are as dismissive of Twitter as Barnes’ colleagues are shown to be, especially when other characters casually namedrop Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Arianna Huffington on first name terms.
Still, it adds richness to the world of House of Cards to see the media in action. The addition of a new media organisation, with a suitably modish name (Slugline anyone?) brings the scene bang up to date, while it continues the trend of on-screen text messaging to show how modern it all is.
The production design is clean and crisp, redolent of the glossy sheen of power. Apple Macs adorn every workspace, and there are lingering shots of immaculate white iPhones. It is as though the producers are seeking to underline the newness of their product with the look of the show itself.
That said, the chief innovation here is in the mode of delivery rather than the content of the plot. The most radical TV series of recent years have been engaged in deconstruction, whether of the mafia, the police procedural, the American frontier experience or the nature of the protagonist/antagonist split itself.
Cards doesn’t do that. Fictional politicians have been venal and self-interested and political dramas have always delighted in such portrayals. Anti-heroes are nothing new either; Frank Underwood’s character was effectively outlined over twenty years ago.
Structurally too, it avoids rocking the boat. For one thing, it still feels like a TV show. Netflix cues up the next episode as soon as each one finishes, as they do with existing TV shows, but embarking on a binge session, you will still find yourself watching the opening credits once an hour. It feels comforting and reassuring, but it may become an anachronism. If this delivery model is a success, and on the evidence of this show it has every right to be, I’d like to see more experimentation with form. It’s the rare viewer who would watch all thirteen episodes in one continuous session, but breaks can come at any time. Freed from the scheduling constraints of broadcast television, shows such as this have more room to play with structure.
Currently, each episode is of the same length, and contains simple episode storylines while advancing the season-long arc. This may come to look conservative. For writers and directors, the possibilities are endless, and with a commitment to making shows as excellent as this one, leaving television behind may come to be regarded as the best thing ever to happen to television.
Read Michael’s look-back at the BBC’s original House of Cards, here.
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