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.