Wednesday, February 20, 2013

House of Cards: Netflix Deals Us a New Hand

"You might very well think that. I couldn't possibly comment." – Kevin Spacey stars in House of Cards, on Netflix

On February 1st, the entire first season of the new American version of House of Cards became available on Netflix worldwide. In light of these unique circumstances, I should emphasize that this post only contains very minor spoilers for the first of the show’s 13 episodes.

A little over a year ago, Netflix launched its first original program, making the first season of Lilyhammer available to its subscribers. The Norwegian-American co-production was big hit in Scandinavia and a moderate critical success here in North America (it’s light, but uniformly enjoyable, fare). It was by no means a quiet rollout, but compared to the press and enthusiasm of the Kevin Spacey/David Fincher produced House of Cards, in retrospect Lilyhammer seems almost like an open secret. (A second season of the Steven Van Zandt series, it is worth noting, goes into to production in March).

Last January, when Lilyhammer was first being rolled out, there was some talk about Netflix’s entry into original programming, and even more talk in recent weeks since House of Cards’ much publicized launch on February 1st. Certainly, House of Cards deserves the press – it is actor Kevin Spacey (American Beauty) and director David Fincher’s (The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) first foray into television, and it is much more ambitious both narratively and artistically than Lilyhammer, but all talk of revolutions notwithstanding, it isn't likely to herald a new age of television by itself. But let’s just say this: House of Cards is worth watching. What else does a viewer really need to know?

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright
Some critics, like the AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff, fear that this new model could undermine what makes great television so unique. He makes a fascinating case, and I do understand his concerns, but right now it is hard to deny that (creatively at least) television is thriving in all of its forms. Claims that this is a revolutionary moment, or that House of Cards’ success or failure is the test case for all such experiments, are, in my mind, overstated. Moreover, Netflix’s experiment is ongoing: over the next few months they will launch Hemlock Grove, an Eli Roth-produced supernatural thriller, and Ricky Gervais’ Derek, currently airing on Channel 4 in the UK and which will run exclusively on Netflix in the US and Canada. And most excitingly, in May Netflix will host the highly anticipated fourth season of the famously cancelled Arrested Development.)  Ultimately, I’m of the opinion that any and all ways of producing television are good for television. New models, old models (be they original web series, DirectTV, or the like), all that matters is that good TV is being made and made available to viewers, however it happens. As Alan Sepinwall describes in his recent book, television’s last great revolution was in large part due to the chaotic televisual space of the time – with broadcast networks struggling to etch out a space in response to the ever growing (basic and premium) cable universe, and cable channels eager to show that they could do something entirely new.

But fifteen years later, traditional network television (with its long seasons, regular ad breaks, and set episode length) is still producing some great shows in both comedy and drama. Basic cable networks like FX and AMC (both have commercial breaks, though AMC has fewer ads than most other outlets) are producing some of the best shows on television, and HBO and Showtime continue to make themselves worthwhile to their subscribers. Cable hasn’t yet proven to be the death knell of the broadcast networks, and Netflix’s great experiment won’t likely even register as a blip on the television universe, at least immediately.

As a viewer I am actually extremely grateful for what outlets like Netflix bring to the table. In one day, Netflix unrolled all 13 episodes of House of Cards’ first season (complete with French dubbing and subtitles for the bi-lingual Canadian audience). I, an inveterate downloader, do still enjoy having control over my viewing pace, but to be honest my TV binge sessions are getting rarer and rarer, and I’m finding that I rarely wish to watch more than two episodes of even my favourite shows in a single sitting. (Some are just too dense to be absorbed that way, and others I want to relish at a slower pace.) For my money, rather, the most intriguing novelty of House of Cards is that Netflix makes it possible to watch it and the classic BBC series it is adapted from at the same time. The greatest gift the Netflix model gives us a richer and more educated television audience, and for that it deserves all the praise that can be heaped upon it.

Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart on BBC's House of Cards
The original House of Cards (a three-part trilogy which aired in the UK between 1990 and 1995) was a darkly comic political thriller set in halls of British Parliament in the days after Margaret Thatcher’s resignation. The series is remembered for its Shakespearean tone, and the signature conspiratorial and fourth-wall breaking asides of its main character (a device series creator Andrew Davies also applied in his brilliant 2001 modernization of Othello).  Setting the story in 21st century Washington is an inspired idea, and the UK series has aged remarkably well – its insights into the sinister underbelly of national politics have only grown more prescient in the intervening decades (see the recent political circuses around the troubled Senate confirmations of Susan Rice and Chuck Hagel for just two recent examples). The BBC series starred Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart, the fictional Chief Whip of a struggling, but still governing, Conservative party with an untested leader. With playwright and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Beau Willimon (The Ides of March) at the helm, the American Netflix series has Kevin Spacey playing Frank Underwood, a 22-year veteran of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Majority Whip for the newly elected House Democrats.

Despite the significant differences between the British and the American government models, whips can play similar roles in both systems. Unlike the Democratic or Republican house leaders (roles currently held by Nancy Pelosi and Eric Cantor, respectively), the whips aren’t often in the news, playing a largely unseen role in the running of the House. They speak to party representatives more often than the press. (And you are unlikely to even know their names, unless he or she happens to be your congressional representative.) Whips are essentially the managers of their respective party’s legislative agenda, and it’s likely you’ll only hear about them when they do their job poorly. Frank Underwood does his job exceptionally well, though he’s eager to move on from his longtime role as a political functionary, a job he rather cynically describes as “clear[ing] the pipes and keep[ing] the sludge moving.” But such a promotion is not meant to be: one of the first actions of the new President-elect (Michael Gill) is to unceremoniously break his campaign-season promise to appoint Underwood as his new Secretary of State. “Welcome to Washington” as Underwood puts it. This last betrayal sets Underwood in motion, using all his political will and influence to gain power and wreak a little vengeance in the process. While he previously sought power through supporting politicians on the rise, now he is out to take them down.

Corey Stoll as Congressman Peter Russo
In this, the new series broadly the original series’ storyline, though the American version has more time to flesh out our protagonist’s universe. The UK original ran in three 4-episode seasons (in other words, a one-season story arc in the British series was told in four hours, with the entire series requiring only twelve hours, while the first season of the American series has a luxurious 13 hours to tell its tale. As a result, secondary characters are given much more screen time in the new series, most notably Frank’s wife Claire (played by Robin Wright), his young journalist protégée/co-conspirator Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), and the poor benighted Congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll, Midnight in Paris) who quickly becomes a pawn in Underwood’s complex plans. Stoll shines in the role even in the earliest episodes, but it is Robin Wright who makes for the most compelling viewing. Her recent film roles – see, for example, Moneyball or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – have been so brief as to almost qualify for cameo status, but in House of Cards, she demonstrates her right to the centre stage. (Her next movie role, the lead in Waltz with Bashir director Ari Folman’s The Congress, has been on my “most anticipated list” for over two years now.) In the UK series, Francis’ wife Elizabeth is more like his externalized id than a genuine character – playing Lady to Francis’ Macbeth, giving voice to his bruised ego, his ambitions, and his darker inclinations. Claire Underwood, on the other hand, is a high profile Washington power broker in her own right, and her ambitions would seem to equal her husband, even if her nerve is not quite as steely as his.

The compelling secondary characters aside, at the end of the day this is a story about one man, a story which in many ways he is telling us himself. And whatever the strengths of the new production, it is almost impossible for me not to continually compare Richardson’s Francis Urquhart to Spacey’s Frank Underwood, and it is in this comparison that the cracks in the new series begin to show. Richardson’s undeniable charisma carries his series, and you have no doubt that he is capable of what Urquhart succeeds in doing. Francis Urquhart blackmails colleagues and has them walk out of the room feeling grateful for his generosity. Frank Underwood doesn’t pull off anything comparable, and his power is largely powered by threats and an almost animalistic presence.

To put it bluntly: Spacey’s Frank simply isn’t a likeable as Richardson’s Francis. Francis, for all the excess of his storylines, is often almost loveable in the role. Fincher’s direction and Willimon’s scripts frontload a lot more menace to the character of Frank a lot sooner. (The show’s first minutes have Frank spontaneously euthanizing a recently injured dog, just below the frame, as he calmly justifies the action to the viewer. The cold, quiet rationalizations that be provides leave the viewer immediately uneasy.)

Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes
In the British series, these conspiratorial asides aren’t merely a nifty exposition technique – they are also an opportunity to give the viewer a taste of the protagonist’s charisma, pulling us into his world as much as providing a deeper context for it. Urquhart’s charm, in evidence as much in those soliloquies as in his interactions with others, effectively ensures that the audience follows him to far darker places than they would have otherwise been comfortable. But what is revealed by Underwood in those structurally similar asides is a disdain for other people that regularly crosses the line into psychopath territory, as when he imagines that he can only get through his weekly meeting with House leaders by imagining their  "lightly salted faces frying in a skillet.” There is a vicarious pleasure in being the confidant of these delicious bon mots, but they don’t engender much sympathy for the character.

Moreover, and I think this departure more than anything influenced my relative lack of sympathy for Frank: in the UK original, it isn’t simply a broken promise that sets Francis on his path, but the legitimately poor decision on the new Prime Minister’s part to ignore Francis’ advice regarding a post-election cabinet shuffle. (Their party had just barely retained power, and had lost more than 70 of its 100-seat lead in the recent election.) Francis is clearly more shocked by that decision than by the broken personal promise. But in the new series, Underwood seems driven almost entirely by personal ambition and affronted pride: the unvarnished ambition and a naked drive for vengeance isn’t balanced by even the smallest hint of public duty (albeit perverted by arrogance or ego). Spacey’s character, while never boring and often a delight to watch, edges far closer to psycho territory than Urquhart ever did, whatever Urquhart was called to do to achieve his aims. The strength, for example, of AMC’s long running Breaking Bad lies in the show’s knack for keeping our loyalty with Walter White, even as he takes darker and darker turns – the British series does the same think for Francis Urquhart. But in the American series I was taken back to my experience of the early seasons of Damages, and that feeling that even in this day and age, at least for me, there is perhaps such a thing as too much snark and sardony (which both Microsoft Word and the OED now tell me is still not a real word). The risk is that even though as you may enjoy the ride, if you can’t love the characters just a little bit, you won’t care very much about the destination.  (In the end, Damages finally became too cynical a show for me to regularly return to.) In House of Cards, I want to be following Frank not merely because he’s the motor of the story, but hopefully because he bears the show’s (perhaps dark) heart. In the early episodes, there are a few tantalizingly hints that Underwood has some blood flowing within him, and I’m more than happy to give him a baker’s dozen of my hours to find out.

In other words, watch House of Cards: both of them. Not only are they both politically interesting shows, and good television to boot, but the fact that they are both simultaneously available to viewers on Netflix gives every viewer of television the ability to do the same kind of back-and-forth comparison and analysis that has long been the purview of only professional critics (or those with a large budget for DVDs). Netflix has given us another good show, and along with that, perhaps, a key to the nature of what might real be involved in the new shift in television; it’s not going to be a revolution in what we watch, or the medium through which we watch it, or even when we watch it. It is going to be a revolution in how we watch. Hopefully it will give television viewers a deeper and more nuanced appreciation for the history and development of television –and it will certainly make for intriguing conversations at the water cooler.  

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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