On the Americanized ‘House of Cards’: Is this as false and treacherous as Washington gets?

americanized-house-cards-false-and-treacherous-washington-gets
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. ()
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

This weekend it was confirmed that the bones exhumed from beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England were in fact those of the kingdom's most detested monarch, Richard III.

In the popular press this has resulted in a glancing lesson in the history of the king's reputation and the portrayal of his character through the ages, from Tudor propaganda in the early 16th century through the defining characterization of Shakespeare, and from there to the historical revisions and literary interpretations of that Richard and the historical one.

In America we've had our own sort of seance this weekend with the infamous king, with the release on Netflix of all 13 episodes of the streaming-video network's untelevised television series, "House of Cards."

Kevin Spacey, who stars in the series as a southern Democratic majority House whip and has been a vocal cheerleader and ad man for the series, also played the historic role of Richard III in a staging of the Shakespeare play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music just last year, to mixed reviews. The reviews for his performance as Francis Underwood, the congressman, are more generally positive and also less passionate. In part I think that's because the role is so much smaller.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

The reviews I saw seemed to go out of their way to avoid comparing the new series to the original "House of Cards," the British miniseries that aired 23 years ago as a fantasia on the state of post-Thatcher Conservative party politics in Britain. Based on a novel by former party chairman Michael Dobbs, who knew every back corridor and secret doorway in Westminster, the British series was rightly thought to present much of the never-before-seen labyrinth of Britain's now-infamous media-political complex as it existed in the late 1980s.

(It's particularly rewarding to re-watch that series now, as we wait to see whether the recent phone-hacking scandals embroiling Prime Minister David Cameron and press mogul Rupert Murdoch have threatened to reduce that complex to rubble.)

And yet the British "House of Cards" was, deliberately, preposterous. What Dobbs knew was that the incidentals of political life—what really goes on at a party conference, how personal peccadilloes on the back bench are used by the party leadership to enforce discipline, how the newspapers and the party get their business done—were, mostly, scenery and stage apparatus. The fact of political life is that very often the little things are the focus because the big picture is such a bore, best left to Oxford PPE dons to ruminate over.

To make a real story out of everything Dobbs knew, a larger-than-life character of absurd ambition and Nietzschean self-regard had to step in and pull all those levers and pulleys and open all those hatches and doorways in the service of some ghastly, unimaginable agenda. In other words, he had to channel Shakespeare.

Though Dobbs cooperated on both the British and American television adaptations of his original novel (and proved himself to be shrewd enough to make significant alterations to his plot and characters to make the original television series a success) I think the connection has been dropped by most reviewers and television writers because the new bears so little resemblance to the old.

It's possible I'd have enjoyed this much more if I hadn't loved the original, but I do. And for what it's worth, it's not like they were adapting the Lord of the Rings trilogy with its millions of fanatic devotees. A throwaway moment here and there appears to make space for us old fans of the "House of Cards" franchise (the single use of the old catch-phrase, "You may think that, but I couldn't possibly comment," for instance). They had a lot more freedom from expectations here in the U.S.

But they kept the title, they kept Dobbs, they kept just enough that it seems strange not to compare the two. Couldn't a comparison be a useful way not simply to establish whether the American version lives up to its progenitor, but whether it works at all? That it doesn't happen to accomplish the former wouldn't matter if it had accomplished the latter; after all, "The Office" did it. But this "House of Cards" doesn't work, and a contrast to the original helps show why.

From the moment I heard that the series was being remade in a Washington setting, I had questions. Francis Urquhart, the the antihero of the British series, had far too British a name for American television, but that's only the start. He's also a relic himself, harking back to the distant mythical past of England in a personal way, and quite literally: "My family came south with James I," he tells the sitting King of England with a contempt borne of superiority, not insecurity. "We were defenders of the English throne before your family was ever heard of."

He's a hard-right conservative, and an outrageous one, well out of step with even most of his country's conservative voters and politicians. He wants universal conscription, and wants to make the European Union adopt English as its official language. Britain is not, he says, in a television interview, "a nation of social workers or clients of social workers. Britain is a fierce proud nation and ... still—God willing—a nation to be reckoned with."

Urquhart taps the ancient, mythological wellsprings of British identity and custom, and the perversity of the series is that he may, by brute force, bring that hegemonic order successfully into the 21st century. He has that fascist narcissism—L'etat, c'est moi—and comes to believe as the series evolves that he really is Britain, so completely has he identified the state of the nation with the fulfillment of his own personal ambitions. He is, therefore, not just a schemer who wants to be the most important and powerful person in his nation, but someone who, as we get to know him more and more intimately, represents an almost Satanic, apocalyptic drive in politics that would surely, if it were allowed to continue unchecked, break the wheel of time and destroy Britain forever.

What's more, he's the majority Whip for the Conservative party, a position that, while low-profile in the regular course of things (which initially gives him a stealth advantage in his efforts to take the office of Prime Minister for himself), gives him access to the prime minister and the cabinet, the top ranks of the party leadership, and the back benchers. The chief enforcer of party discipline, he has plenty "in his gift," including great influence over the party's perception of Conservative candidates' viability in their own constituencies. Bootstrapping his way from there to control ever higher levels of government infrastructure seems horrifyingly possible if utterly implausible. It is, in short, a single position unlike any extant in American politics, and a fun and plausible place for Dobbs to have sown the seeds of the Conservative Party's self-destruction in the alternate hypothetical universe he has created.

Francis Underwood is our antihero in the American version, and I can't help but feel that they changed what they shouldn't have, and kept the same what they shouldn't have. He remains the majority whip, which seems odd since there are positions in Washington that might have served this adaptation better. Verisimilitude does count for something here, and it's a little annoying that the majority whip seems in "House of Cards" to have an almost bottomless budget and endless latitude for espionage and fixers, or that a former staffer of his who is now an energy lobbyist should be so consistently darkening the doorstep of a whip whose state is of no particular interest that we know of, alternately issuing pleas for assistance and foreboding threats that really just confuse our sense of Underwood's position in Washington.

With many roles in Washington, insiders may object, it's the man or woman who makes the role and not the reverse. Perhaps. But Underwood doesn't convince as an incarnation of Dick Cheney or Tom DeLay. So far, he reads more like Harry Reid with a livelier imagination.

And that's almost clearer from the things—which amount to almost everything else—that are changed in this new version of the franchise. Underwood is from a family of poor peach farmers from the South, when he could have been a Rockefeller or a Roosevelt or a Hornblower, or a former billionaire with ties to international corporate intrigue whose money is in a blind trust, or any number of other things that would have made his particular inbred sociopathy easier to understand and to unleash on the Capitol. It's not clear what sets him apart from the true path for America that would make his ascension such a disaster, that would really make him an antihero. Sure, let him be president already, I found myself thinking; I don't see why he's much worse than many of our real ones have been.

In the original, Urquhart's quiet campaign of terror over Westminster is occasioned by his having been passed over for a senior ministerial position, but it only activated an underlying hatred for the way his country was evolving into the future. In this version, Underwood's campaign still just seems like revenge, albeit a very long, very elaborate and very disproportionate one, after a chastening rejection by his boss.

He's a Democrat, which is a position he's forced into because he couldn't be the right kind of Southerner (of a certain vintage) if he weren't. And his politics are simply the safe, middle-of-the-road, lobbyist-inflected consensus-driven politics of the moment in Washington. Without a mission to redirect the country undergirding his copious efforts at grabbing power, the importance of his mission to him is trapped in his Georgetown townhouse, and in the confines of the ambitions of his marriage with Claire (Robin Wright).

So, to Claire Underwood. Here, we have another change from the original. Urquhart's wife begins in the series as a canny if distant adviser, and the viewer is unsure how much of her husband's enterprise she is privy to. From the beginning her resolve is steely. And as the series continues, she appears to have formed her own relationship with Korder, the brick wall of a man who is the Urquharts' security detail (and heartless fixer). At the beginning, she spends her evenings reading House & Garden while listening to Wagner on enormous headphones, a brilliant detail that spares us several hours of character exposition without depriving us of a character to love.

But as she urges her husband further and further along in his career, to take not just "all that may become a man" but what doesn't become him, what becomes a superman, her Lady Macbeth characteristics slowly emerge. Their marriage is a strange and compelling place to be, but once again, it's not the marriage per se that propels her. If Francis is to redirect the course of world history and make Britain the ruler of the world again, then she will make Francis. Happy to stand behind her man and wave, behind the scenes she has the satisfaction of knowing that she is the ruler of the ruler of the waves. The final resolution of the series, which I'll not reveal in case you take my advice and go back to it, proves it beyond any possible doubt.

It's not probable that such a woman would exist today without having any ambition whatsoever for herself. While Mrs. Urquhart's motivations are believable, they aren't American, and they are well past their freshness date here. One only has to look at the career of Hillary Clinton to realize that they don't make wives like this anymore, who have intelligence and drive and political ambition but want none of the glory for themselves. And so Mrs. Underwood—Claire—must be a different sort of woman.

But what sort of woman is she? After spending 10 hours with her, I have little idea, except that I don't like her much. She runs a clean-water initiative and appears to have been installed late in the organization's life history, with a goal of making herself a global player by expanding its profile in Africa. It's her putative fund-raising ability, as a Washington spouse, that lands her the role, I presume, and early in the series, when a million-dollar donation falls through because of a conflict with her husband's machinations, she takes the dive. Though she fires 19 people in apparent cold blood, you get the sense she never really gets over it.

It takes a while for her character to become illuminated beyond her happening upon a few scenes of everyday life that haunt her for unfathomable reasons—an old lady at a cemetery, a bum who takes her 20-dollar donation, folds it into an origami swan and returns it to her. Profundity is suggested, but not achieved, by the recurrence of this origami theme in several of her scenes. By the end, her attempt at achieving legacy with her marriage has become the most mundane possible way for a woman of her stature and character to accomplish it. It's disappointing.

Their marriage is supposed to be about much more than making each other happy or helping each other to become successful. They are, together, meant to put some stamp on the world that neither could have managed alone. But their end game is unclear until the final episodes of this season, and when it does begin to emerge, it fails to impress. I don't think this is an oversight. As Claire, Robin Wright gives the character plenty of confused determination masquerading as confidence, which is a believable position for a character to be in, if not a particularly interesting one to watch.

Which brings us to Spacey's performance. As Richard III, Spacey played the character, somewhat controversially, in a radically simplified form. The King wanted power for power's sake, and dares to do more than may become a man simply to obtain it, to cross Shakesperean streams. The Macbeth/Richard matrix is pulled through in the American version, as in the British one, by means of a fourth-wall-breaking device: Spacey speaks to the viewer, narrating the events and sometimes speaking to us in the second person to do it.

In a drama that dares to punch out some of the walls of strict realism while leaving others intact, as the original did, it may be distracting to modern viewers weaned on radical verisimilitude, but is rightly placed.

But in this drama, which trades the self-mocking pomp and trumpets and orchestras of the original soundtrack in favor of brooding, almost gothic techno-inflected strings, dimly lit rooms occupied by all-nighting obsessives and omnipresent slatted blinds, it just feels unsophisticated.

As Urquhart, Ian Richardson delivered monologues that could could be mordantly funny or morbidly narcissistic. They were, mostly, interior monologue made public, and they followed his moods; only sometimes were they true asides to the audience. Depending for their effectiveness as they did in our total trust in Urquhart's genius, they had to be stunning in their perceptiveness or humor or literary observation or else they'd backfire.

As Underwood, Spacey delivers little of that. A couple of side-by-side comparisons might be enough to illustrate.

Urquhart speaks to the viewer about another character, a politician, and says:

His morality is strictly back-street, sunday school, hypocritical cant. Picked up in Peterborough, or Rugeley, or some such god-awful place.

Underwood, speaking of a high-level presidential appointee, says:

She's as tough as a two-dollar steak.

Urquhart, speaking to viewers about the young female reporter with whom he's striking a bargain:

She trusts me absolutely. I trust she does. And I, I trust her absolutely - to be absolutely human.

And later:

Playing with the hopes and dreams of a daughter, now gentle, now hard, rebuking and rewarding, chastising and forgiving. The pleasures of a father. Of a father of daughters. What greater power is there than that? Why should a man want more? Why should I yearn to be everybody's daddy?

Underwood, speaking to a young female reporter with whom he's striking a bargain:

We’re in the same boat now, Zoe. Take care not to tip it over—I can only save one of us from drowning.

Spacey plays his role with conviction, but its not a conviction I share. I don't think I know who this guy is, so I'm not sure how Spacey does. The accent and the homey aphorisms all feel like a kind of display. And they may well add up to a shop-front that Spacey's character would have developed in Washington circles and for his public persona. But in that case, he shouldn't have the opportunity to turn to the camera and slather yet more of it upon us. We'd expect him to sound different, not the same, as he does when he's talking to the rest of political Washington.

If we were simply watching him from an omniscient standpoint we could suspect that there was more intelligence and nuance broiling beneath the surface of this man than he reveals to his colleagues and his enemies. When he turns around to speak to us, we are made aware that there isn't.

Here, too, an element of mistranslation is at play. A dry wit and an ability to show some measure of indifference to the pieties of political speech is, in a combative parliament and in a country that thrives on political zingers as the U.K. does, an asset to the right kind of politician with the right constituency in the right party. What Urquhart shows us is his brilliance, and it's what he's showing off at Question Time, too (which he compares to being "mugged by guinea pigs").

The character they've built for Underwood is one we already know and are bored with: a blue-dog Democrat with horse-sense. That character could be a great one, but his interior monologue doesn't crackle. He's a protagonist for another show, and not one with monologues.

At any rate, if Underwood's character isn't set up to dazzle us with his quick-footed repartee, the series still depends on dazzling us. And if a crackling wit is supposed to be what cleaves us to Underwood then it must always, invariably crackle. In this the writers are either holding back, or have made the mistake of attempting to write a character of superhuman wit. That means without superhumans in the writer's room, you're sunk. (It's the same mistake, I'd argue, that "Downton Abbey" made with Maggie Smith's character, whose famous one-liners are starting to sound like a drag performer reaching the end of a very long set, though the hype continues. A recent example: "She's like a homing pigeon. She always finds our underbelly." Zing?)

The other great virtue of a show like this is supposed to be its verisimilitude. Product placements help a bit, and everyone from Honey Bunches of Oats to CNN to Apple gets in on the act. That really is Soledad O'Brien interviewing Zoe Barnes on "Starting Point," that's really John King reporting on the fictional new secretary of state.

But for verisimilitude, in 2013, several major revamps of the original were required. We're in the internet age, after all. It was judged, in fact, that not even Politico was of-the-moment enough to provide a home for our young reporter, Zoe Barnes, who becomes ensnared in Underwood's plots as a young, scoop-hungry reporter. So we get the unconvincing website "Slugline," which seems to be contrasted with Politico only to avoid the publication being identified with Politico or Wonkette or anything we're familiar with. That buys the show room to make more stuff up, of course. Unfortunately Slugline doesn't feel much more real than the student newspaper that employs several characters in the original "90210."

The Washington Post, too, gets an alternate-reality double. In the first several episodes Barnes' tricky reporting techniques become problematic for the dyed-in-the-wool Washington Herald (the Post, right down to its owner-publisher, a dignified older woman obviously spawned from the paper's paterfamilias). In the Herald newsroom, we are treated to moments like seeing a guy in rumpled chinos and oxford shirt turning around from a computer monitor with lots of green-on-black in its display, exulting: "It's amazing how many Internet hits this is getting!"

Once again, this sort of verisimilitude would be a cheap commodity, easily ignorable by the makers of "House of Cards," if they didn't seem themselves to think it a calling card. For all the sophisticated Washington politics the series pretends to expose, it ritually gets it wrong when it's something that's meant to be familiar, and when it's a tantalizing secret it's utterly unsurprising. With two very big exceptions, there is little in the machinations of Francis Underwood that rises even to the level of shock. At a certain point, for instance, everything hinges on whether he can convince the Department of Defense to close one shipyard instead of another, to mollify a House member whose vote he needs to wrangle. If these are the sorts of deep dark secrets hidden in the corridors of the Capitol, I am greatly relieved for American democracy. And at the cliffhanger, Barnes and her friends are on the cusp of, maybe, exposing that. 

(Here I should say that there are two very big things Underwood does that are meant to be quite shocking. Not dealing with them here is, mostly, a decision about how to handle a review of 13 episodes of television released at once.

But for those of you who have finished it, I'll say very carefully: To me, one was almost slapstick, and so completely removed a plot-line that that whole chunk of the show feels in retrospect like it was a waste of time; the other was essentially unmotivated and still doesn't make any sense to me. I know he had to do something, but I don't know why he had to do that.

I may update this post at a later date, after I'm convinced it won't spoil the plot entirely, to deal with them, since I know not everyone spent 13 hours of their weekend watching this like I did, and I want those people to be able to read this.)

I don't know much about the production history of the new "House of Cards," but I find it difficult to understand why the creators stuck with the British novel and series as a framework. A perfectly feasible Washington chiller-thriller is certainly within reach of this roster of writers, directors and actors, if only they'd write it and act it.

The American "House of Cards" is not missing its Francis Urquhart. It's not Michael Dobbs that the writers who created Underwood needed to take heed of, nor Ian Richardson that Kevin Spacey needed to adapt his character from. What's missing is this show's Richard III, its Macbeth, its Shakespeare. David Fincher and Spacey and the rest sought it out in American political life, but so far, they've come up empty.

Several critics have noted that the storytelling conventions of the program are altered somewhat by the prospect of binge viewers, people like me who sat down to watch all 13 episodes in a single gulp. Some have even said it watches more like a 13-hour movie than a 13-episode season. Unfortunately, to me, it watched more like a 13-hour television episode. Complete with cliffhangers that leave almost all of the major plot lines of the season unresolved.

Thinking about it, I wondered if Netflix had gone far enough. I might enjoy this series more, I thought to myself at one point as I cooked eggs without hitting pause, if I waited until they announced the series was over for good before I watched any of it. Then, at least, I'd get resolution at the end. I might prefer a 39-hour movie to a 13-hour television episode.

On the other hand, it leaves open the possibility that this show, which was so expensive and so long in the making and watching, will improve in the next round. Perhaps its purview will widen. Perhaps the Underwoods' ambitions actually will challenge something that matters to us, next season, instead of lots of little things that don't. But Netflix is betting that you liked the first season enough to perk up when the next one arrives, many months and many millions of dollars from now. That we believe the seeds are sown here, and that we look forward to learning which ones will grow. I don't. Do you?

Here's a Francis Underwood fan clip-reel:

And here's a moment for you to share with Francis Urquhart: