Netflix’s House of Cards is a bold television drama. It represents a bold attempt to remake the critically acclaimed UK production of House of Cards and transfer it from its context in post-Thatcherite Parliamentary politics to the present- day United States government. An ambitious work on account of its subject theme, House of Cards seeks to contribute to a discussion about the state of the American political regime and it must be judged in proportion to its ambition. If it has succeeded, it will have succeeded through replicating the brilliant performance of the original and the shrewd insights into political processes. Unfortunately, despite its ambitions, House of Cards does not quite manage to hold this hand.
The basic premise of the House of Cards approach to political drama is simple in concept but elaborate in development, relying upon the intention of the politically ambitious protagonist. In the original, Francis Urquhart, brilliantly played by Ian Richardson, was a powerful but loyal chief whip of the Tory party who had been promised a prestigious cabinet position by the new Prime Minister. But this new Prime Minister breaks his promise, and Francis Urquhart sets out to have his revenge: first, by helping topple the Prime Minister, and second, by becoming Prime Minister himself, after disposing of the principle frontrunners. In the new series, Francis Underwood, House Whip of the Democratic Party, is promised the position of Secretary of State but is passed over by the new Democrat President—and a broken promise requires revenge. In so far as the transfer of the protagonist’s intention proceeds, the US version succeeds admirably, especially considering the challenge of transferring the plot from a Parliamentary context where legislative members can advance directly to key executive portfolios, to the Presidential context, where legislative members segregation from the executive makes the path of career advancement from the legislative to the executive quite murky.
One of the chief virtues of the US version is that the precise manner of Underwood’s political plot is left unstated until quite late in the first season, leaving the viewer guessing as to how the pieces will line up. Off the “flop,” then, the cards of US show appears strong, capturing negotiations in Congress, the intrigue between the White House and Congress, and the shadowy presence of special interest groups and media personnel lurking around the Hill. Moreover, the show takes head on the new role of social media in politics, emphasizing how news is transmitted instantly through over the internet, and how print media struggles to make itself relevant when met with the blogosphere. The “flop” delivers a Washington that could comfortably sit in the set of The West Wing and win praises for its picture of post-Twitter political landscape.
But despite managing the difficult transfer into a different political regime, the “turn” diminishes this somewhat comfortable hand. First, there is the problem of the protagonist. Ian Richardson’s performance was that of an accomplished thespian, someone who could apply both his experience as Richard III and Macbeth into the role of Francis Urquhart. His character exhibited a carefully crafted psychological and political aura: like Richard III, he showed a character who was in control of fortune, who was manipulating down to the smallest level every detail necessary for his advancement.
Not so with Kevin Spacey’s Underwood. While Spacey’s performance is undeniably the powerhouse performance of the show, the direction of the show forces him into a different, less commanding persona, where he actually exercises bad political judgement. For example, his journalist mistress, taken up to give him a useful instrument in the media (as in the UK version) is subject to a bizarre pout on the part of Underwood when she decides to end their sexual relationship. Underwood eventually forces her to resume it but makes it clear to her she is a means to satiate his libido, which leads to her hostility. Urquhart would never have done something so politically imprudent. This undermines the Richard III of Machiavellian perfection Francis must be for the show’s principle device to work effectively. For the Underwood-Urquhart protagonist is the only character in the show to break the Fourth Wall, the barrier between the character and the audience, for a reason: he is supposed to be the only one in the political room who really understands the game, the only one we as the audience really want to hear talk to because he is so clever. But if he is just some better-than-average politician with big dreams but big vices, we find him less compelling, less brilliant; and consequently, the show much less exciting.
Much of the show, then, must hinge upon the content of these remarks delivered when the Fourth Wall is broken. Are they actually remarks worth listening to, remarks that have something to say about political life and the political regime in America? There are the occasional moments. The strangeness of American democracy (as de Tocqueville would tell us) is how it really rests in the small, local communities that are far from the high life of Washington. As a result, an American politician finds himself pulled between the complex world of national security, economy or social debates on the one hand and mundane local political squabbles on the other. One of the most effective episodes of House of Cards captures this divide brilliantly. Underwood, in the middle of his machinations to win the President’s support by becoming the leader on a controversial education bill and pushing it through despite the oppositions of the teachers’ unions, suddenly finds that an old opponent in his home district is trying to slander him. The issue? A young girl is killed in a car accident because rather than watching the road, she was looking at a water tower built to resemble a peach. But this water tower was something built through Underwood’s support, and the death of the girl allows his opponent to attempt to rally the community against Underwood. Thus Underwood has to leave his high-stakes negotiation for the sake of protecting his seat back home. “I hate this small-ball crap,” he says. But of course this is what makes or breaks a congressman, and the episode captures that divide between the great-ball and the small-ball politics magnificently.
Yet as the show proceeds, the attempt to describe the political scene becomes much less pronounced, despite moving through gubernatorial elections, party conferences, foreign affairs, and vice-presidential vetting. There is only a cursory interest in the content of these, mostly through the invocation of the “usual suspects:” oil money in politics, Israel-Palestine being a touchy subject, elections requiring manufactured images, and so on. Unlike the UK version, the US version attempts to develop a considerable cast of characters, but these often end up looking a bit too one-sided, drawing from familiar themes. For example, developing the characters of the journalists in the show has them assume the mantle of self-righteous defenders of the Republic which has saturated that profession since All the President’s Men, and that trend will likely worsen as the show moves into his second season. If a show seeks to portray the gritty realism of political self-interest, it cannot exempt one profession without looking at once partisan or self-contradictory. The Wire never made that mistake.
By eschewing the focus on one particular character and developing a mini-series into a fuller, several season account, the makers of the US House of Cards believe they have produced a darker, grittier version than the original UK version, something which can comment on the entire Washington political society. This is a big hand to play which involves a considerable amount of bluff and bluster as to the importance of its focus on distraught characters in political life, on new media, and on a more fallible protagonist. But does House of Cards ultimately win its hand? That depends on whether or not you find its bluff convincing. Viewers whose opinions on American politics constitute a prevailing cynicism, a suspicion of either major political party having a deep stake in effecting particular ideas, and who think that realpolitick means a vague schematization of power, hypocrisy, money, and sex will find that the show plays that hand well. They will proceed from one episode to another with more than mild interest as Underwood works out his grand design, driven forward by roughly the same spirit that prompts one to watch episode after episode of 24.
Nevertheless, those who enjoyed the original were no doubt impressed by a penetrating script that sought to display the un-mentioned channels of Parliamentary politics: the machinations leading from the party conference to the party leadership to the Prime Minister and the delicate but crucial relationship between Monarch and Prime Minister, to name a few. They shared in the plot of a ruthless politician who rewarded the viewer’s witness to his crimes with insights into British political regime. Consequently, the British watched the show with fascination. But Americans watching House of Cards will hardly share the same experience when the “river” shows all the cards on the table. Beneath the veneer of the story are the same fashionable repetitions about American politics. In the last analysis, the show was too afraid to be really controversial and attempt to say something significant about the American political regime.
If it wanted to comment on the situation of American ideological debates, it would have to actually say something about those ideological debates. If it wanted to comment on a post-2008 President frequently accused of vacillation and subject to manipulation by his political advisors, it could have engaged directly by paralleling his Presidency. If it wanted to comment on the inept workings of Congress, it could have sought to display a number of stratagems deeper than simply noting pressure groups with oil interests. If it wanted to comment on issues in education reform in the US, it could have done better than a superficial presentation of a teachers’ strike behind a reform bill with unspecified content. If it just wanted to tell the story of revenge for a broken promise, it could have proceeded with half as many episodes, rather than these token references toward fashionable political issues easily found in the op-ed headlines of USA Today. Consider the card-game analogy: if a poker player tries to bluff, he has to bluff hard. Half-measures only deserve to be called out.
Nathan Pinkoski is currently an MPhil Candidate in Political Theory at the University of Oxford. He graduated from the University of Alberta in 2011.
Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia