Review: House of Cards (US and UK versions) and A Very British Coup

Netflix has produced an original series of programs called House of Cards. It is a story of the seedy political wheeling and dealing and backstabbing that goes on at the highest levels of government, the The West Wing with all the feel-good, warm and fuzzy elements stripped out, and in which none of the principal characters end up looking good. In a new twist, rather than doling out episodes on a regular schedule, they released all 13 episodes of the first season simultaneously on Friday, February 1.

The story will be familiar to those who watched the excellent 1990 British series of the same name and its 1993 sequel To Play the King and the 1995 climax The Final Cut, with the superb actor the late Ian Richardson in the main role. The new version shifts the action from British politics to the US but with the power relationships of the main characters kept largely intact.

The story in both versions is that of revenge and ambition, of a politician who works hard to ensure the election of his party’s candidate to be the country’s leader and had been promised a cabinet post as a reward for success. But after the election, the promise is reneged on. After the initial shock and anger of rejection, he determines to get even with those who betrayed him and is willing to destroy anyone along the way to achieving that goal. He is aided in his efforts by the fact that those around him underestimate his cunning and see him as merely a party workhorse. He uses a young and ambitious woman reporter as his conduit to getting stories placed in the media and his main ally in his efforts is his wife and together they form a ruthless and ambitious couple, reminiscent of that archetypal fictional power couple, the Macbeths, in which she provides the backbone when he seems to be faltering in his mission and starts doubting himself.

It is always a little tricky when the lead characters in a drama are people who are not admirable. It requires great skill on the part of the actors to get the audience to sympathize with them while at the same time deploring their actions. The US version has two excellent actors in Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in the lead roles who try to do just that. Spacey is particular good at this, having successfully played heroes and villains and morally ambiguous people in his long career. Spacey’s facial expressions are less Machiavellian than Richardson’s. The latter beautifully conveyed cunning and superciliousness under masks of collegiality and obsequiousness. The fact that initially he was the wronged party buys him some audience sympathy and although that dissipates as he callously destroys the careers of other people, he periodically exhibits enough humanity to not alienate the audience entirely.

While Wright is an excellent actor, I think she overdoes the steely coolness of her character, never once showing strong emotion in the eight episodes I watched, making even Lady Macbeth seem warm and cuddly by comparison.

In addition to the story outline, the US version also adopts some of the more memorable tropes of the British one. The main character in the British series was named Francis Urquhart (known as FU) as the Whip of the Conservative party which has the majority in parliament, while Spacey’s character Francis Underwood (who has the same initials) is the Democratic Whip of the US House of Representatives where his party has the majority. Both series also had FU regularly talking directly to the camera to convey his thoughts and provide wry commentary on the events going on around him and how he is manipulating the people. This breaks the ‘fourth wall’ but does not destroy the suspension of disbelief, similar to what Shakespearean characters often do in the plays, in this case most reminiscent of Richard III. This provides for much of the humor as when Spacey delivers an impassioned sermon at his church about his grief over his father’s untimely death while telling the viewers that his father was pretty much a loser whom he hardly knew and that he was better off dead.

In order to advance his aims, Urquhart would spread gossip and rumors by dropping hints to others and when others picked up on the rumors and asked him to confirm whether the story hinted at is true, he would provide a non-confirmation confirmation by saying “You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment”, thus providing himself with deniability. That was a running gag in the original series and the same verbal formulation is repeated once by Spacey early in the new series, perhaps as a tip of the hat to the original. I am not sure if it will be a recurrent feature.

Unfortunately the new series suffers from the common American affliction of taking a successful British series, usually quite short, and then stretching it out by interweaving multiple story layers and adding subplots, some of which are wildly unrealistic. As a result, it loses some of tight pacing of the original. The original British trilogy had 12 episodes in all for a total of about 11 hours while Netflix has already released 13 episodes for roughly the same total length for what is just the first season, with at least one other season in the works. I am not sure if the current story arc will have the same trajectory of the original but after watching eight episodes, it has not advanced nearly as far as the original did after just four.

While I was completely absorbed after watching four episodes of the new series, after six I began looking longingly at the books I wanted to read instead and after eight episodes, I gave up. It is not that the series is bad, but for me the major investment of time just did not seem worth it. Those who have the stomach for long series may enjoy it more and the reviews so far have been good.

Here’s the trailer.

If you enjoy political intrigue, you would be better off watching the original House of Cards trilogy. Here’s a trailer.

But if you want an even better political drama, the one to see is A Very British Coup (1988) that consisted of just three episodes of 50 minutes each. It has the added bonus of dealing with class issues, telling the story of a steelworker, a socialist from a working class background, who is elected prime minister of England. Unlike most politicians who talk about how they will work for ordinary people if elected and then turn around and serve the wealthy (sound familiar?), he actually intends to do that and thus has to deal with those from privileged backgrounds who are entrenched in the system who seek to undermine him because they think that he does not belong in that office and that he threatens their very way of life. It is superb. Unfortunately there is no trailer.

All these shows are available on Netflix.