Perhaps the biggest praise I can offer for the Netflix remake of the British political thriller House of Cards by Michael Dobbs is that it may just deserve all the hype it is attracting, and some awards too, when the time comes.
It seems that half the content of all reviews I have seen so far is taken up with uninformative but apparently obligatory speculation about the Netflix business model and ‘bright-shiny-internet-thingie-I-don’t-understand’ fulmination by the reviewers, so I won’t do that here. Nor do I want to get bogged down in synopses. Stenography and parroting are what Wikipedia and a gamut of other sites are for (see codicil below).
Instead I want to focus on the lineage of the British BBC production of the 1990s; the difficulties faced by writer Beau Willimon in translating a Thatcher-era political thriller into an imaginary near-future Washington, and the reasons why it worked despite some obvious flaws.
Lord Dobbs, Baron of Wylye
Central to my understanding and appreciation of House of Cards is my knowledge of the Thatcher era in Britain, and one of its products – the novels House of Cards (1989), To Play the King (1992), and The Final Cut (1994) by Michael Dobbs, made into eponymous BBC dramatisations in 1990, 1993, and 1995 respectively – that so compellingly highlighted the callous, self-serving new orthodoxy of British (as well as American and Australian) politics during those times.
It is distinctly possible that a vast majority of the present audience doesn’t know anything about those times, and doesn’t care, but I can’t divorce myself from experiences and insights that exist regardless of audience interest.
So, in that context, the observations and characters in those Dobbsian fables, including the Shakspearean flourishes, and the trademark, conspiratorial asides made directly to the audience, could not have come from just any novelist: they are quintessentially British, brimming with Michael Dobbs’s own Tory pedigree, which includes Oxford and Tufts as alma maters, a PhD in international relations, and careers in journalism and advertising, interspersed with being an advisor to Margaret Thatcher, as well as Conservative Party chief of staff (1986-87), joint deputy chairman (1994-95), and life peer since 2010, sitting on the Conservative benches of the British House of Lords.
When Dobbs wrote about the born-to-rule Francis Urquhart, epitome of the British landed gentry, passed over for a promotion he clearly expected, and his decision to counter his disappointment by putting his back-room political skills to use in a tour de force of Machiavellian realpolitik, it is almost a stunning confession of Dobbs’s own experiences, and certainly a remarkable admission of the venality and larcenous spirit captivating the political animals of the times, and of the post Thatcher/Reagan era altogether.
That Urquhart should seek to manipulate the media by intellectually and physically seducing the impressionable, ambitious Mattie Storin, with the knowledge and consent of his wife (who plays an almost negligible rôle) is almost not surprising to anyone who knows of the incestuous relationship between the press and politicians since the 1980s. And the dirty tricks he played on unwitting opponents are almost not shocking when we recall or search for the seemingly routine press reports of just such incidents, albeit sans a master puppeteer in the background (not that there weren’t some of those, too).
The unflattering and unrelenting exposure of what makes political parties and their functionaries tick is what made the series so powerful, and popular. No pretense at good intentions or high moral ground at all, just as things really are in those walks of life.
In that sense Dobbs occupies a node on a lineage that includes Shakespeare, many of whose ‘historical’ plays were thinly veiled political commentary in an era where that could cost one’s head. Literally. Thus we have Macbeth and Coriolanus to pass judgement on contemporaries too risky to insult or offend directly, but Henry V and Richard III to flatter the legitimacy of the Tudor line at a time during which Elizabeth’s claim to the throne was settled only by dint of occupancy and the capacity for force of arms to defend against pretenders.
Dare one say that Dobbs’s Richard III, Francis Urquhart, has a real life analogue? Dare one discount the suggestion? My guess is that Urquhart is a bricolage of personalities and bastardries observed directly by Dobbs. Made all the more believable by the impressive prowess of Ian Richardson in portraying a type of English country gentleman immediately recognisable to anyone who’s met the real thing, and has been shocked by the Nietzschean will to power underneath all that urbane and softly spoken, plummy charm.
Twenty years later, a writer maybe 30 years Dobbs’s junior, but also with some exposure to the political rough and tumble of his own era as a Democrat campaign aide, was presented with the vexedly difficult task of transforming a quintessentially British parable into a ratings-grabbing American drama.
It is delightful to be able to say that he succeeded rather beyond all expectations, notwithstanding that his best lines were delivered by the formidable, spellbindingly engaging Kevin Spacey.
It seems that it would only be a bought and paid for, or miserly group of judges who would deny the Netflix House of Cards a tranche of awards, including for the writing.
The reinvention of the country Tory Francis Urquhart as the white trash southern Democrat Frank Underwood is almost flawless, but it is with some of the other characters that Willimon seems to have run into trouble.
If there is to be a serious criticism of the series, it is that it ran three or four episodes too long, and almost entirely because of dead-end plot developments scripted for the female characters. It is unclear whether these storyline culs de sac were imposed on Willimon by producers to increase the appeal of the show among female audiences, or whether Willimon struggled with the female characters altogether.
As far as I can tell, the first series of 13 episodes in the Netflix incarnation runs to about seven hours longer than the original BBC production of four 55-minute episodes of House of Cards, the sequels being entirely fresh productions of new material rather than successive seasons of the same series, the way some marketing of the DVD sets now seems to suggest. There is reason to believe that the second Netflix season hasn’t moved on from Dobbs’s original novel.
To create this much longer-form exposition, a great deal more attention is paid to female characters, particularly Underwood’s wife Claire, than was the case in the British original. However, much of that extra attention does not appear to lead anywhere.
Establishing Claire as a powerbroker in her own right, running a charity as her own private fiefdom, and illustrating her capacity for single-minded toughness seems fair enough, where this demonstrates her partnership with Frank in pursuing a Washington power couple’s ascendancy.
However, there are sequences written for the character that are carried only by the absolute joy of watching Wright as the gaunt, haunted, haunting wraith that is Claire Underwood, echoing something of Glenn Close’s more shocking, stark Patty Hewes in the brooding legal thriller series Damages (which was an all female show). One such sub-plot is the recurring theme of origami sculptures, introduced when Claire gives a homeless man $20, only to have that donation thrown back at her as a folded swan. On its own, the incident might be suggestive of the much greater complexity of poverty in the US than can be approached merely through random, insignificant charitable actions. But the origami trope recurs in relation to Peter Russo’s children, and to punctuate an affair with photographer Adam Galloway without adding at all to the story or any deeper appreciation of the character.
Indeed, the entire affair with Galloway, played captivatingly by the underrated British actor Ben Daniels, is a wild goose chase. Lyrical though it is, the sequences are completely extraneous to the main game. Even more pointless, despite the obvious hook for a future revenge sub-plot, was the complication of Sandrine Holt as the Gillian Cole, the environmental activist working with Claire.
Similarly, the indulgent focus on the under-powered Kate Mara as the Storin doppelgänger, aspiring blogorati gossip merchant Zoe Barnes, is a disappointing misdirection. It results mostly in illustrating her as a spoilt little bitch, almost chiming with the cliché about ambitious women being regarded as bitchy, except in this case there was no real evidence of character or method associated with ambition and the wherewithal to succeed. It was all just grasping entitlement thinking. Making that personality vacuum even more awkward was the inclusion of an entirely new character, Constance Zimmer as Janine Skorsky, who brings even less to the story than the doltish Barnes.
In terms of the integrity of the entire story, I couldn’t help wondering whether a man of Underwood’s character and background would really stoop to an artless twit like Barnes, or whether someone like her could possibly really have the sort of clout in the news media that might adequately serve his needs? Only amateur political bloggers actually believe they have the influence they think they have. Everyone else knows them as neurotic coffee-flavoured milk drinkers, generally as short on literacy as analytical abilities or insights. Barnes was just not convincing on any level.
Then there’s the long suffering Christina Gallagher (Kristen Connolly) as the Russo staffer/girlfriend. Pure cliché with no redeeming features. Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey) as the Latina (check) woman (check) go-getter (check). More cliché. Perhaps the only supporting female cast member who stood out was Rachel Brosnahan as the waifish, pitiful (teenage?) prostitute Rachel Posner, probably precisely because of the scripted minimalism of the rôle and the way she gets fucked over by all the other whores in the piece (which is really everyone), even when Underwood’s chief of staff, Doug Stamper, acts as a remorseful former john.
With the time saved on unnecessary female stereotyping, I would have loved to have seen a deeper insight into Stamper, and maybe Freddy (Reg E Cathey) as the somewhat mysterious proprietor of Freddy’s BBQ Joint.
For what it’s worth, I also thought the exposition of male characters Lucas Goodwin, Adam Galloway, Remy Danton, and Tom Hammerschmidt left something to be desired, though in a mercifully shorter fashion. As an aside, I thought Gerald McRaney was grotesquely miscast as Raymond Tusk, making my teeth hurt the way squeaky chalk does when scratched unwillingly across a blackboard. And the entire eighth episode, with Underwood returning to his military school, should have been scrapped for its counterproductive, maudlin atmosphere that was at odds with everything else we learn about Frank.
It is quite possible that the flaws I see are invisible to most others, and might actually be regarded as strengths by some. With a $100 million budget, the producers have every right to be more concerned about ratings numbers, including female audience share, than my aesthetic considerations. Nevertheless, I think the first season would have been better off for harsher editing and three or four fewer episodes.
Those considerations aside, the first season was a hugely luscious experience, with distinctly exhilarating moments when Spacey just eclipsed the character and transcended the rôle, and when Wright nailed you to the seat with her stunning apparition as angel or demon – or both at the same time.
This show is most definitely not light, fluffy entertainment, and while its message may not be politically targeted so much as deeply pessimistic about ethics more generally, it grapples with political realities in a much more credible fashion than the boring, disingenuous old formula that finds hearts of gold and good intentions in even the most irredeemably amoral settings.
As with the BBC production, the whole thing could have been done on stage, and probably without any change to the principal lineup, but the murky, inky post production sheen was a nice polish on an already slick visualisation – a distinct feather in cinematographer Eigil Bryld’s cap. Not even the subtly suggestive score by Jeff Beal let down the production team, as is so often the case with TV shows, where music seems to be a poor second cousin or afterthought rather than a principal enhancement for mood or atmosphere.
I thought it a bit of a shame that David Fincher directed only the first two episodes, which I regard as probably the best overall, but I cannot honestly fault the other directors beyond critiques about the scripting already made. And even in the scripting department, it should be acknowledged that Beau Willimon shared writing credits for all but four of the episodes, with his solo outings including those first two super impressive installments.
It was to be expected that the series would ratchet up to the fever pitch of a cliffhanger, and creditably the teaser for the second series was not so overcooked that it became inedible, but I was disappointed with the ridiculous presentation of a collective confabulation of the conspiracy story by the bloggerati crèche; if this is how American journalism really looks, it’s a small wonder that the profession is not as highly regarded any more than it was 40 years ago, when Dobbs was a feature writer for the Boston Globe, Willimon was yet to be born, and no one confused gadgets or the internet as some miraculous vector that can turn no-talent imbeciles into writers or investigative journalists.
That leaves only two things to be said: I have great expectations for the second series, but also fears these cannot possibly be met; and on the topic I said I would ignore, I think it matters not all that the series was distributed by internet stream rather than broadcast or cable. A drama is still a drama, and just as gadgets and the internet don’t make bad writers any better, they don’t add or subtract from performances or production values.
This show deserves to succeed commercially and critically no matter how it is disseminated or received.