Most of the foreign, crime TV series that appear on Netflix or Hulu are from the dark, snow-clad shores of our Nordic brethren. At the top of the list are Wallander and Lisbeth Salander.
At the heart of a lot of these dramas is the hero/detective as a misfit. This idea of a hero/misfit dates back at least as far as Sherlock Holmes, a pipe-smoking, cocaine-addicted, sartorially-challenged private detective who never seems to have any emotions other than those he saves for the hunt - Watson! The game is afoot!
Now, a world away from the aurora borealis, comes a crime drama from Australia, The Code.
Ned Banks (Dave Spielman) is a web journalist working for an online newspaper that can barely keep afloat. He has a complicated personal life, with an ongoing affair with a political operative, Sophie Walsh (Chelsie Preston Crayford), and a brother, Jesse ( Ashley Zukerman) who is the hero/outsider of the series. Jesse suffers from - it's not clear - he's just cuckoo, a screw is missing, mad as a hatter, unhinged, out to lunch, lights on but no one's home and whatever else you would call a guy in his late 20's early 30's who has never been with a woman, has no idea how to talk to someone, but - BUT, is one of the great hackers in the world. He's so good, he was arrested for hacking and promised not to do it any longer; however, without hs hacking ability, there is no The Code. So much for promises from crazy hackers.
The online things are shown on the screen a la the recent british production of Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch. It makes for a fast pace and with the Aussie dialect, I advise keeping the closed captions on for this one.
The plot is, at first, a mystery. A young girl and her boyfriend (he is driving) get hit by a big truck. She ends up dead while he escapes, but suffers severe lung injuries. What happened? The boyfriend's cell phone recorded it all, but the video is not clear. Ned gets ahold of it and asks his brother to help him clean up the video, but, suddenly, the nerdy Jesse is busy for a reason that seems unlikely - he has a girlfriend, Hani (Adele Perovic). She can hack, too. It's a romance built on the thrill of uncovering a coded message and getting into virtual places you are not welcome.
Meanwhile, the powers that be in the Australian capital (go ahead, take a guess before you look it up) have a problem with a cabinet minister who is shown in photos have a fight with the husband of a woman with whom he has been having an affair. Is this just a diversion to keep the journalists looking at sex when it should be probing the details of a strange car accident in the middle of nowhere?
When the Australian equivalent of the darkest CIA/FBI operatives kidnap Jesse and torture him, the cat is out of the bag - something bad happened in the Outback when those two lovers' car was hit by a truck. But what? Ned starts poking around and he finds Alex Wisham (Lucy Lawless), the local teacher in the Outback who is putting out signals to Ned, but what does it mean?
Six episodes of about an hour each is not too big a commitment in today's binge-watching world to find the answer, but BEWARE, there is a second season that should become available soon in the American market.
Network: Netflix/HULU (season 1)
Creator: Shelley Birse
Exec. Producers: Carole Sklan, Greer Simpkin
THREE IN ONE
There is a long history of movies or TV series originating in one country and then being transferred to another country with a new cast and similar plot. Most recently, the most famous movie transferred may be THE GIRL WITH THE ... movies based on the best-selling books by Stieg Larsson and the most famous transferred TV series is House of Cards. In both cases the originals are better.
One of the best of these transfers are the TV series based on the original Swedish/Danish TV series, The Bridge (SE). The series was re-done in English/French and titled The Tunnel and American/Spanish as The Bridge.
The premise is the same for all three versions: a body is found in the middle of a bridge or tunnel on the border between two countries and police from both countries must investigate. In each series, it is a male officer from one country and a female officer from another. In each series, the male officer has serious domestic problems, complicated by his serial infidelity while the female officer has personality problems making it difficult for her to relate to other people.
With that core, each of the series evolves in ways that are appropriate to the countries in which they are set.
The Bridge (SE) written by Hans Rosenfeldt and Camilla Ahlgren consists of four series all broadcast on HULU and starring Sofia Helin as Saga Norén, lead homicide detective in Malmö and Kim Bodnia as Martin Rohde, lead homicide detective in Copenhagen (series 1–2) and Thure Lindhardt as Henrik Sabroe, lead homicide detective in Copenhagen (series 3-4). The first series is about a deranged murderer who uses his crimes to highlight serious social problems in Scandinavia. The murderer develops a relationship with a reporter and the symbiotic dynamic between reporter and subject is explored.
The Tunnel is a joint production between British and French TV written by Ben Richards who worked with Hans Rosenfeldt, the co-creator of the original series; it was originally broadcast on PBS. The series stars Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy as British and French police detectives Karl Roebuck and Elise Wassermann. The plot is similar to The Bridge (SE) with a serial killer who exposes five 'truths' about the ills of society. As in the original, the crimes culminate in a confrontation between killer and cop based on a personal wrong done to the killer by the cop.
The Bridge is the American version of the show, developed by Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid, that was broadcast on the FX network. The series stars Diane Kruger (US) and Demián Bichir (Mexican) in main police roles. Around a series of murders of young women in Mexico, the show explores the usual issues in shows about the US-Mexican border: drug trafficking and illegal immigration. While receiving strong critical acclaim, this series only lasted two seasons. Currenlty, it is available on HULU, also - so be careful in how you search for it: use the (SE) suffix for the Scandinavian version.
All three are worth watching but I'd have to rate the Scandinavian and Anglo-French versions better than the US-Mexican since the problems explored and the characters are more interesting.
Start with the original, then the Anglo-French version and, if you still want more, try the US-Mexican series. Each has excellent casts and you are sure to get caught up in the characters, their lives and the issues explored - what more can you ask from a TV show
Barbra Streisand's voice is "one of the natural wonders of the age, an instrument of infinite diversity and timbral resource.”
That's the opinion of Glenn Gould, one of the great classical pianist of the 20th century - and also the opinion of millions of her fans.
But how did this worldwide love affair with a voice all start?
In the early 1960's, she began to appear on TV variety shows like Gary Moore and Ed Sullivan. That's when my sister, Felice, started to notice her and got me to watch shows that Streisand would be on. It is difficult to convey the impact that her voice and her style of singing had on her audience at that time. Certainly, Streisand's style of singing was influenced by the emergence of rock 'n roll - she sang every song like it was her last, pouring out her emotions vocally, to act out the song.
Every performance was a mini-play about lost love, happy times, found love, etc. And most importantly, songs about a young woman who wants 'much more than keeping house.' Streisand mined the Great American Songbook better than any singer of her generation not named Frank Sinatra. And she too had her own special arranger who could fit any song to her unique style - Peter Matz. His arrangements of both new and old songs put the Streisand voice upfront and gave her plenty of room to perform her vocal acrobatics.
There is one song that epitomized the emotionally charged Streisand style and how it differed from other pop music singers - Cry Me A River. This is a song that Julie London had a big hit with in 1955 - here is her version. Many female singers recorded it, and, as usual, Ella Fitzgerald's was the best, musically.
Then, Streisand sang it. She starts her version of the song in the manner we were used to hearing it, as a song by a sad, disappointed lover. Then, she kicks into emotional hyperdrive and by the end and suddenly we are looking at one angry lady who really means that she wants her returning lover to cry her a river before she will give him the time of day. She's not just hurt, she's mad - she wants to see this guy suffer like he made her suffer. She wants revenge!
Soon, the networks were banging at her door to do a 'special.' Over the next five years, Streisand did several, starting with My Name is Barbra in 1965. She hired a great TV producer, Joe Layton, to conceive a special type of show that would star only her, very unusual at the time as most 'specials' had many guests stars. Instead, Streisand, alone, held the stage in a variety of situations, singing songs that most people had never heard before. This first effort won all the awards, including a Peabody Award.
Next, Color Me Barbra, found her at the Philadelphia Art Museum, blending into period paintings while singing an appropriate song. One takes her back to the terror in Paris in the 1790s. Streisand is an aristocrat singing The Minute Waltz while waiting to be guillotined (singing a funny song is a lost art - Streisand did it better than anyone had). The second half of the show has her in a live menagerie, singing to various animals. The songs are all exceptional, but listen to her take of a simple song, Why Did I Chose You, and how she can simmer her emotions just as well as she can explode them.
Both of these specials ended with a mini-concert so it was appropriate for her next special to be a concert - and oh, what a concert. One hundred and Twenty Thousand people showed up in New York's Central Park for a free concert - A Happening in Central Park. The resulting TV special and album made musical history - it was the first time a non-rock star had attracted so many young fans to a concert.
I had the pleasure of seeing her in Philadelphia in 1966. I couldn't afford the hefty prices for a ticket ($3.50 to $12.50!) so my sister took me (really, there were complaints about the high prices). I remember much of that night, but the clearest memory is at the end of the concert when she sang Silent Night. That song is not on the official list of songs performed that night, but she sang it, on a clear warm August night - and she did in Central Park, too. It was magical.
Now, the good news - all of these early TV specials are now on Netflix. Take a look at them and discover why a whole generation of fans fell in love with the voice and the woman who is 'one of the natural wonders of the age.'
FAUDA, THE CHAOS OF LIFE IN ISRAEL - PALESTINE
Fauda is an Israeli written and produced show streaming on Netflix. Like the show itself, the word, fauda, has a double meaning. In Arabic, it means chaos, but it is also used by Israeli Special-Ops members to indicate that an operation has gone bad, for example, if an undercover agent is outed, 'fauda' is the agent's one word signal to his team that something has gone wrong.
Fauda is the story of the Israeli-Palestinian on-going war told from the point of view of a group of Israeli Special Ops forces. When writers Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz pitched the show in Israel, no one wanted it. Israelis were not going to watch a show about the conflict that they were living every day - or so the TV execs thought.
They were wrong. Fauda is Israel's biggest hit TV show of the decade. It is a hit for the same reason that most TV series are hits - great characters and great stories. The main character is Doron (Lior Raz), a member of the Special Ops team whose mission is to capture Palestinian terrorists. He is married with two children and had resigned from the team at the insistence of his wife, but he re-joins the team for one last mission. He stays with the team because there is no such thing as 'one last mission', an end-story in this war where an eye for an eye perpetuates the violence regardless of the best intentions.
The series has been criticized by Palestinians for being pro-Israeli, but there is more than enough blame to go around. In the series opener, the Special Ops team is chasing a terrorist who has killed hundreds of Israelis in random bombings. The Special Ops team go into the West Bank and pose as caterers at the wedding of the terrorist's brother. The team assumes the terrorist will show up for the wedding and he does, but not before things go wrong when the team's cover is blown. The team has to shoot its way out and the groom is killed. This random killing of innocent Palestinians happens all the time in the series. Dozens of Palestinians are killed as 'collateral damage' and there is not one investigation, not one protest, not even an apology.
There are about a dozen characters, Israeli and Palestinian, who are central to the story and each of them pays a price for living in the conflict. What distinguishes the series are these well-drawn, complex characters who want to get on with their lives, but who are stuck in a world of double-dealing, lying, violence and revenge. A few on both sides of the conflict straddle the cultural divide, but they are soon killed or forced to chose.
Fauda is not a polemic about the ravages of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. It is an expertly told story about the people who are trapped in this conflict, on both sides. As the violence spreads like the Black Death over their communities, these characters meet, fall in love, marry, divorce, have kids, argue - they go about doing all of the things we all do in our lives, except their lives are tinged with the sorrow of knowing someone, often a family member, who was killed 'by the other side' in the conflict.
Watching this series from America, you are put into the middle of a war zone where there seems to be no right, just all wrong, just all expediency and revenge. Both Israeli and Palestinian politics play a major part in the series and this layer of politics just adds to the moral ambiguity of both sides' actions. One thing looms over every life, every decision, every attempt to live a normal life - the battle for the land that both sides claim as its own. No matter how non-political some Israelis and Palestinians try to be, the conflict will find them and suck them into the maelstrom, into fauda
FAUDA on Netflix, streaming all episodes
Created by Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff
Starring Lior Raz, Hisham Sulliman, Shadi Ma'ari, Laëtitia Eïdo, Tzachi Halevy, Yuval Segal, Neta Gerti, Tomer Kapon, Itzik Cohen, Rona-Li Shimon
Country of origin: Israel Original languages: Hebrew and Arabic
No. of seasons2, No. of episodes24
THE HANDMAID'S TALE
HULU's The Handmaid's Tale is in its second season and is actually getting better.
The first season paralleled the book by Margaret Atwood. It's the near future in the USA (now called Gilead) and a group of men have taken over the government. When the novel came out in 1985, there was a right-wing resurgence in the US under President Reagan, but, happily for the creators of The Handmaid's Tale, the political climate in the book resonates even more in the Trump era. Gilead is in the grip of a misogynist government that is fundamentalist Christian with an antediluvian justice system and pro-environmental policies, kind of like being a pro-business, anti-law enforcement, fundamentalist pornography-star bedding, gun-toting US government - impossible, right?
Season 2 of The Handmaid's Tale explores a new dynamic: how to survive in a society that looks upon you, at best, as a means to an end, that is, a baby machine and, at its worse, sees you as expendable. There are scenes of 'unwomen' cleaning up fields of nuclear waste that came from a recent war or the mishaps in a nuclear plant. These 'unwomen,' are the dregs of the new world order - feminists, nuns, professional women, lesbians - all those women who refuse to subjugate themselves to the power of the men.
Bruce Miller created the show. His previous hit was being involved in the TV series ER in the early 2000s. There have been a variety of directors, but the style of the series has been consistent: it has the look of a Dickens' novel, that is, it harkens back to a late 19th/early 20th century look of tudor- style houses and functional, concrete public spaces.
Much of the show's success can be attributed to Elisabeth Moss, playing the lead character, June Osborne whose name is changed to Offred (Of Fred, her master/commander). Moss can project grudging obedience better than any actor on the planet. Her role as Peggy Olson in Mad Men gave her training in the art of being suppressed. With every episode, Moss gives us something new to marvel at; she never accepts her station in Gilead and in every look and gesture we see her fierce refusal to give up the struggle to be a woman, a human being.
Moss carries this series on her broad, capable shoulders, but the rest of the cast provides ample support. Joseph Fiennes as Commander Fred Waterford is the embodiment of the supercilious man of God who routinely rapes Moss' Handmaid in a ritual that the powers that be call the 'ceremony.' Yvonne Strahovski is Waterford's infertile wife who was a conservative icon (much like those blonde attractive TV personalities much favored on Fox News) in the old world, but must now play the dutiful wife who has to hold down the handmaid Offred while her husband 'impregnates' her (so they hope). Ann Dowd is truly scary as Aunt Lydia, a woman in charge of the handmaids' education and subsequent performance as a handmaid. Her solicitous torture of unruly or disobedient handmaids is a case study of how to make over human beings into donkeys, offering the carrot and, if repulsed, the stick. And there is no better example of this method's success than the character of Janine/Ofwarren played by Madeline Brewer. When she refuses to conform, her right eye is removed; when this doesn't force her to behave, she is sent to clean-up nuclear waste as an unwoman.
You may be reluctant to watch a series that seems so far removed from our world, but then I suggest you think about what has happened since we elected a President with the self-control of a spoiled child. The most incredible things are said and done by him and his minions and there is barely a raised eyebrow in Congress or among those who run this country. Greed, sycophancy, nepotism, self-dealing, mendacity, prostitution (yes, that's what it is when you pay or are paid for sex even if the payment is nominally for an agreement of confidentiality), racism - the list is as long as it is incredible - and now this may become the new normal. And if that happens, can Gilead or something like it, be far behind?
WESTWORLD OR HOW I STOPPED WORRYING AND LEARNED HOW TO LOVE ANDROIDS
In 1973, Michael Crichton wrote and directed Westworld, a movie about an amusement park in the future where the androids who were built to give people a real Western movie experience, suddenly rebelled. A few years later, a TV series called Beyond Westworld was made based on this premise.
The movie was a mild hit, but the TV show was cancelled after just five episodes.
In 2016, HBO made a new TV series based on this premise. Westworld is an amusement park where wealthy guests pay to live out their wildest fantasies. Set in the old West of Hollywood movies, the good guys wear whites hats and the bad, blackl. The 'hosts' are all androids who look and act as humans - except, they can never harm or kill any guest. The hosts are given elaborate back stories, often requiring them to find someone or some place. Meanwhile, the guests are as good or as bad as they want to be. With no restraints on their behavior, guests can kill, rape, impede or help the hosts. As one human character says, you find out who you really are.
The first season of Westworld was the set-up. Various guests come to the park for various reasons and we see the hosts being programmed and recharged by the management that runs the park. The drama is injected into the show by the fact that the original creators and investors have different views on how this unique business should grow.
In its second season, Westworld aims for a higher dramatic arc:what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to love, to care for, to imagine, to be free?
The androids have rebelled. Delores is an android who gave to the guests in the first season the feelings they yearned for - gentleness, innocence, kindness, beauty. In the second season, she has turned on the guests and the management - she has become free and, like so many free humans, has chosen to revenge those who had so callously manipulated her. Now, she is a killing machine, willing to do whatever it takes to break free into the 'real' world.
All of the emotions we think of as truly human are questioned. Delores' lover, an android character, is reminded by a human manager that he was built to love someone else; he responds that what he felt for this other woman was 'just words in my head.' And what is love? Is it more than just words in your head? Feelings? What are they if not a way to react to the world or to a person with something that has been programmed inside of us?
Westworld has elaborate plots, complicated characters, incredible sets and costumes - but in the end it is a TV show about soul. What is it and who has it? As its characters search the depths of the human experience, there are battles, shootouts, excursions into other 'worlds' (such as Empire world that takes place in British Raj India) and flashbacks to the origins of these virtual worlds. Lots of blood, nudity (the androids aren't real, so it's just like seeing a naked doll, right?) philosophising about the nature of being human and some real drama. You may like it if you liked Lost or Star Trek or existential philosophy. Or John Ford movies.
TEN TV SHOWS TO BINGE WATCH ON NETFLIX AND IMPRESS YOUR FRIENDS WITH
With the rise of Netflix, the way in which we watch TV shows has changed. No longer must we await the weekly release of a new episode of a show we are watching. Now, we can watch as many episodes of the show as our free time can hold. Bleary-eyed, the next morning, we tell our friends, family or co-workers that, yes, we had stayed up late, but such and such a show was worth it. Our viewing now 'spans the globe' as they use to say on Wide World of Sports. And so here is our list of ten Netflix TV shows that should carry a warning label: BEWARE, THESE SHOWS CAN BE DANGEROUS TO YOUR SLEEP AND CAN BECOME ADDICTIVE.
1. RITA - 4 SEASONS OF 8 EPISODES EACH ABOUT 40 MIN LONG SUBTITLES
A Swedish school teacher has both personal and professional problems, but she is the teacher you wished you had. No guns, no chases - just a good TV show about life, you know, the stuff that happens while you're busy making plans.
2. HOUSE OF CARDS - 3 SEASONS OF 4 EPISODES EACH ABOUT 50 MIN LONG BRITISH
A leader of the conservative party decides to become the prime minister by any means necessary. This is the show that the Netflix HOC is based on - but is so much better than its offspring.
3. MONEY HEIST - 2 SEASONS OF 9 AND 10 EPISODES EACH ABOUT 45 MIN LONG SUBTITLES
A group of criminals in Spain is gathered by a "professor' to pull off the heist of a lifetime - from the Spanish Mint. Of course, things go wrong and, so, we have drama!
4. THE FALL - 3 SEASONS OF 6 EPISODES EACH 60 MIN LONG BRITISH
Gillian Anderson and James Dorman give us 100 shades of creepy in this crime drama about - what else, a serial killer. But this is one of the best of that genre.
5. BABYLON BERLIN - 1 SEASON OF 16 EPISODES EACH ABOUT 50 MIN LONG SUBTITLES
Germany, 1929. A new cop in town is breaking up the old gang, but we know what it all leads to - and it ain't good. This is one hellava show and even the music is addictive.
6. MINDHUNTER - 1 SEASON OF 10 EPISODES EACH ABOUT 50 MINUTES
The FBI, 1977, and a new kind of killer is out there. The FBI has to adapt and figure out how to catch killers who are smarter than your average nuclear physicist..
7. SUBURRA, BLOOD ON ROME - 1 SEASON OF 8 EPISODES EACH ABOUT 45 MINUTES SUBTITLES
The Mob is fighting to control the port of Rome and the casino planned for the area.
8. MARSEILLE - 2 SEASONS OF 8 EPISODES EACH ABOUT 40 MINUTES SUBTITLES
The story of modern urban problems set in southern France starring Gerard Depardieu
9. EPISODES - 5 SEASONS OF 7 EPISODES EACH ABOUT 30 MINUTES
A British couple bring their hit British TV show to Hollywood and changes are made - to the show and to the them.
10. AND NOW THIS IS YOUR CHANCE TO TELL US ABOUT THE NETFLIX SHOW WORTHY OF BINGE WATCHING. GIVE US OUR TENTH SHOW.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
The Bletchley Circle was one of the best dramas on TV when it premiered in 2014. Its premise was simple — in the years after WWII, a group of women who worked together during the war come together to solve crimes. But these are not just any women.
They worked for the British Secret Service (at its super secret Bletchley Circle HQ) to break the German codes during the war, saving untold lives. Thrust back into civilian life, the women are forced to take those menial jobs that were "suitable for women” after the war. There are a smattering of female sleuths on various TV shows, but rarely has it given a group of intelligent women a series of their own. Until The Bletchley Circle.
The Bletchley Circle begins when Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin), a typical early 1950s housewife with two children, sees a pattern in a series of gruesome murders of women. She solicits the help of her former distaff code-breakers, and they discover that a serial killer is on the loose and has been killing women for many years. The police refuse to believe in the serial killer scenario and instead treat each murder as a separate event. The killer has been very smart in setting up a patsy for every murder.
The series is brilliantly written by Guy Burt, an English novelist and veteran TV writer. The characters he has created are unforgettable, not only because of their unique talents, but also for their refusal to give up what they do best — solve mysteries.
Susan's husband is dismissive of her intellectual pursuits — he is always surprised at how readily she does the Times’s crossword puzzle, regarding it as a freak talent. Lucy (Sophie Rundle)'s physically abusive husband doesn't know why his wife can remember the minutest detail of every newspaper story she reads, not realizing she has a photographic memory. Millie (Rachael Stirling), a brilliant linguist, leads a bohemian life, stuck in low paying “women’s jobs” such as waiting tables. Jean (Julie Graham), the oldest, keeps everyone in line; she has no private life at all and spends most of her time at the library she runs.
In their personal lives, none of them can tell their family and friends what they did during the war because, in England, the Official Secrets Act prevents any disclosure of clandestine activities — and this law is not subject to judicial review, so if you break it, you do not pass go, you go straight to jail. Separately, they have woven their lives into the drab quilt that was post-WWII England. Together, they blossom into one of the best vigilante groups of all time.
Each of the stories begins with a small commitment on their part to figure out the puzzle of some crime — it is just an intellectual exercise like breaking a code. Soon, they are forced to get directly involved in order to prevent an injustice or solve a crime, bringing them closer to the danger that they only read about during their code-breaking days.
Ultimately, the series is not about the crimes being solved but rather the true identities of these extraordinary women. Each of them is forced to live a lie, pretending to be the helpless, hapless stereotypes that the male-dominated society of the time forced them to play.The secrets they are forced to keep, including the most damaging one — who they truly are — eventually poison their personal lives. Only the strongest survive that self-betrayal.
In the end, Bletchley Circle does what all great crime dramas do, revealing more about the crime detectors and their world than the criminals and how they are caught.
And then it was cancelled.
Incredibly, its producers, ITV, a commercial public service television network in the United Kingdom, decided not to continue the series even though the third season had already been written. No reason was given for the cancellation.
Is it a coincidence that, in an entertainment industry more and more dominated by movies and TV shows geared to teenage males, a show about a group of adult, intelligent, resourceful women, who show up their male counterparts by combining their unique talents, gets canceled?
No, it wasn't. Until now.
IT IS COMING BACK!
The world has changed because courageous actresses outed a producer pig who used a casting hotel room to prove to himself how powerful he was - hey, he was a pervert not a blind pervert. He knew none of those actresses were coming to his room because of his good looks.
And so ITV sees a chance to jump into the #wetoo movement,but who cares about reasons - Bletchley Circle is back. Sort of.
Two of the original characters,Millie and Jean, travel to San Francisco and join forces with American female code breakers to solve crimes. The migrating women are the characters without a family. We can only hope that the new series will not discard the context of the original, a world in which men dominated every aspect of society. For example,take look at the New York Philharmonic in the mid-1950s. No females (except on harp, the female instrument).
BRITBOX is the commercial arm of BBC so it will only be available for a fee.
ORIGINAL SERIES AVAILABLE NOW ON NETFLIX
CAST:Julie Graham , Rachael Stirling, Anna Maxwell Martin and Sophie Rundle
CREATED BY: GUY BART
Netflix’s House of Cards (Season One)
Netflix has produced a real original series with real stars – Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright portraying a US Congress Majority Whip, Francis Underwood, and his non-profit CEO wife, Claire.
Original may not be the best choice of words – House of Cards is based on a BBC show of the same name staring Ian Richardson as Felix Urquhart (known as FU), a British MP Majority Whip who lies, cheats and murders his way to the top, supplanting a weak Prime Minister, a man FU describes as having ‘no bottom.’
The Netflix version shares many plot points with its British ancestor:
-Underwood gets screwed out of a top cabinet post by an ungrateful newly elected President.
-He plots his revenge with his beautiful and just as cunning wife.
- He and his wife are childless, devoting all of their time and talents to their ambitions.
- He uses a novice daughter-surrogate reporter (with whom he has an incestuous relationship) to get out his duplicitous messages.
- He has a no-questions-asked staffer-fixer named Stamper – as in, he stamps whatever his boss wants done.
- He speaks his innermost thoughts directly to the audience (in the BBC version, this is much more effective as FU re-cycles many of the great lines from Macbeth, the template for both versions of the story).
- He uses a weak-willed underling (who has a loving, lovely assistant) to do his dastardly deeds and
- He has a wife who does not breakdown when the going gets tough but rather screws her courage to the sticking place.
This is the show that started 'binge-watching.'
It’s worth it. The acting is top-notch, the shows production values are evident, the directing is good and the writing, while lacking sense and punch at times, is better than most TV shows – or movies.
House of Cards is just good enough to make you wish it were better.
The problem is that this deck is stacked. It suffers from the age-old problem that all American TV shows about politics suffer – lack of cujones.
In the Brit series, the main character is a wealthy Scot who is firmly in the right-wing of the right-of-center Tory party. He wants to become PM in part to feed his ambition, but also to complete the work that Thatcher began. He believes that England was made by and for the merchant-adventurer. His rise to the top is helped by a crass media mogul who expects in return that FU will let loose the dogs of unbridled free market economics. FU’s style of governing is rooted in his belief that the UK needs firm leadership and as his country’s ‘daddy’ he will put a bit of stick about to get things done – the right way.
In the Netflix House of Cards, Spacey gives his usual restrained pitch perfect performance, this time with the same southern drawl he used in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. While his character is more than willing to put a bit of stick about to get what he wants, he stands for nothing. The Netflix House of Cards can never figure out what they want Underwood to fight for other than his ambition. Maybe that was a choice – what do these guys we elect stand for when you get right down to it, other than their own ambitions?
In the opening episodes, Underwood proves his worth to the President by ushering through Congress an education bill – really? That’s as controversial as you can get? OK, so it’s an education bill opposed by the teachers’ unions because it has some teacher evaluation standards. In order to pass it, Spacey goes toe to toe with a teacher’s union lobbyist who is undone by his hot Italian temper. I was waiting for the alcoholic Irish ward leader and the womanizing French ambassador to make an appearance.
While the Netflix House of Cards touches many pressure points in the American political system, it rarely does so with enough muscle behind it to make us feel the pain of our deteriorating body politic.
In one episode, a former staffer turned lawyer-lobbyist (now that’s an all-too-true cliché) who represents a huge energy conglomerate offers a seven figure ‘donation’ to the non-profit run by Claire Underwood. Her husband cautions her to refuse it, worried about the undue influence the donor will seek in repayment. Mr. Underwood pontificates that money is not the same as power: “Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.”
But most American pols take the money even if real power eludes them. Just glance at the bios of those in Congress. Most start out firmly rooted in the middle class – living paycheck to paycheck. Then they get elected and go through a wonderful Tunnel of Money. Somehow, they emerge golden, having sloughed off their tin cocoon. Not all. Some leave office with nothing more than when they entered it, except for the generous pension and benefits.
In another episode, Underwood is pressuring two ‘liberal’ congressmen to vote for a Clean Water Bill that is more about creating jobs than saving the environment. The congressmen think the bill too weak to accomplish any real good and want to defeat it, hoping to pass a better bill in the future. The message is that liberal congressmen are unwilling to compromise their principles even if it means tanking an important Democratic initiative. One word kept popping into my head – Obamacare.
In some episodes, the errant details are all too obvious. An up and coming Congressman, Pete Russo, goes home to South Philadelphia to mend fences after he has done nothing to save the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard (actually, it closed in 1995 and every local called it ‘the Navy Yard’). Underwood, for his own reasons, needed the Yard to close and so he threatened to expose Russo’s penchant for cocaine and prostitutes (they always seem to go together in fiction) to get him to lie down for the Navy Yard’s closure. As Russo walks up to a row house, we hear a lonely train whistle in the background – you know, lower middle class neighborhood so it must be close to the train tracks. OK, maybe it’s Two Street. A few minutes later, another house in South Philly and another train whistle, then another row house and another train whistle. Born and raised in South Philly, I can tell you that there are no train whistles echoing down the narrow side streets at 10th and Snyder. Car horns, yes. Gunshots, sometimes. Train whistles, no.
The most interesting character in the series is Claire Underwood, played to perfection by Robin Wright. She has an affair with a Byron-esq Manhattan photographer, and contemplates a life lived purely for the fun of it. But she is firmly rooted in the world of power and corruption. In one telling scene, she visits a member of the security team who guarded the Underwoods for many years. He is on his death bed and confesses to her a long-held deep hatred of her husband for having what he could never have - her. Claire tells him that many men wanted her and that she accepted her husband’s marriage proposal because he was the only one who offered her what she wanted - not happiness, but success and power. You have to take what you want. Then she places her hand under the sheet that covers his dying body. It’s a gesture at once both merciful and pitiless.
House of Cards comes to an abrupt conclusion at Episode 13, but Netflix ordered 26 Episodes so the story of Francis and Claire Underwood is far from finished. Let’s hope that the next episodes add some heft to a colorful but somewhat tepid view of American politics from the inside.