When House of Cards became Netflix’s first foray into original programming, I didn’t follow the rush, despite the fact that I admire David Fincher’s work and I’ve always liked just about everything star Kevin Spacey has ever done. Part of it was because I wasn’t a hundred percent certain Netflix’s entering the TV world this way was necessarily a change I believed in. But quite a bit of it was because I had been such an admirer of the British version of the series and I couldn’t believe an American adaptation would work.
Andrew Davies House of Cards was actually three separate mini-series showing the rise of MP Francis Urquhart (the late Ian Richardson) to Prime Minister after Margaret Thatcher’s leaving power. He was one of the most monstrous villains in the history of TV, yet there was something so charming about him that we wanted to see him bring down Prime Minister and force kings to abdicate the throne. Furthermore, the British political system is so radically different than America’s, I couldn’t see how the rise to power could be staged with any bit of regularity, especially after twenty year. Finally, I didn’t believe an ongoing series could be made on it, especially since the initial season was 13 episodes, one longer than the entire British trilogy. So I ignored it.
Then when the Emmys made history by nominating House of Cards over such brilliant series as The Good Wife and Justified and nominated Spacey and Robin Wright for lead acting awards, I realized, just as I did when Bryan Cranston won his third consecutive Emmy for Best Actor that I was ignoring the series at my peril. So I went to Netflix and began to watch the series. I am, however, still exercising restraint; therefore this review will only deal with the first three episodes.
Spacey plays South Carolina Rep. Francis Underwood, who after helping elect a Democratic President is robbed of his reward as Secretary of State. Like Urquhart in the BBC version, he swears vengeance, though considering how our political system works, it may take him more time for those plans to be realized. So far, he has publicly undermined the administrations education reform act, sabotaged his replacement as Secretary of State, and has arranged for the current nominee. He also negotiates his fellow legislators, the world of lobbyists, and does damage control to negate a rivals chance of winning his district by exploiting a tragedy. All of is done, fans of the BBC series will be glad to hear, with his asides to the camera showing how he twists the reigns of power over constituents and chiefs of staffs alike. And Spacey is more than up to the challenge, even mastering a solid accent
Unlike the British series, Underwood doesn’t seem to be operating by himself. He has a loyal chief of staff who managed to blackmail a fellow Congressman with a propensity for drugs and sex. (Cory Stoll is very good in this role.) Like the British series, he has managed to corral a major source in the media, a blogger named Zoe Barnes. In that series, she seemed to help him by ending up in Urquhart’s bed, and while this series seems to be tending in that same direction, it is clear that Zoe is just as determine to use Underwood as he is using her. Perhaps her ambition is a sign that things have changed after twenty years.
But the real revelation of this series is Robin Wright as Claire Underwood. For nearly twenty years she has labored in the Hollywood system between roles that undercut her or that she wasn’t suited for. Here, as a lobbyist for the Clean Water Initiative (still not sure where this is going), she demonstrates a ruthlessness and force that nearly matches that of her Congressman husband. Few will forget the scene where after telling a friend to cut half her staff, she then fires the woman who has just done all her dirty work without a second thought. Not since the days of Sherry Palmer on 24 has there been a political wife with such utter clarity of purpose. No wonder Francis says he loves this woman “like a shark loves blood.” That’s part of the reason I doubt Zoe might end up in Francis’ bed. I seriously doubt this woman would allow it without cutting off one of his balls.
I’m not yet prepared to say that this series is as good as the BBC version yet. What I will say is that this is the show Scandal tries to be but mostly fails at, showing the seamy underbelly of politics and how people are ground up by it in the face of power and ambition. It shows how the media reacts with the use of TV media figures that I frankly didn’t think a business like Netflix could manage to get. And it may open a next chapter into the current Golden Age of TV, if it can get talent like this and be this impressive. It may not be at the level of Breaking Bad or Homeland yet, but given time, it may very well be. Whatever it is, I’m looking forward to the next disc.
(One last note: In the original series, Urquhart had a very famous line that closed out nearly every episode. I won’t use it, because the delivery is vital. Underwood uses it here, but unlike his British counterpart, there is definitely a sense of menace to it. I didn’t think anyone but Richardson could do justice to it. I was wrong.)