Saturday, March 7, 2015

House of Cards

Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none

Another season of House of Cards is upon us.  I'm still working my way through the first two seasons, which have been translated into Lithuanian for television.  I find myself having to explain the American political system at the office, as it is quite different from what it is over here.  However, this show isn't so much about the political system as it is how to subvert the process for your own political gain. Surprisingly, the writers made little effort to adapt the British television series from a few years back, which similarly had a parliamentary whip rise to the top of the party.  Even the names are remarkably similar, Francis Underwood and Francis Urquhart.  In fact the writers could have kept Urquhart too, as there are plenty of old Scottish families in South Carolina, but I suppose it is a bit difficult to pronounce.

The show is fun in its Machiavellian sort of way, but the idea of a White Democratic Majority Whip from South Carolina having this much influence in American politics is quite a stretch.   Beau Willimon is a bright young writer, who worked as a volunteer and intern on the campaigns of Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton, Bill Bradley and Howard Dean, parlaying this experience into the screenplay for Ides of March.

It surprises me that he didn't do more to rework the old BBC television series, as the political systems of Great Britain and the United States are pretty far apart.  Instead, he chose to give the characters distinctive American color.  Maybe that was part of the agreement in rebooting the series, but the writers of Homeland, taken from an Israeli television series, rebuilt the show from the ground up, with only passing references to Prisoners of War.   No matter because the star of the show is Kevin Spacey, who breathes new life into the character, and an impressive list of directors, led by James Foley, give the series a cinematic feel.

Still, I'm surprised Willimon didn't make more of an effort to shape the series to suit the nature of American politics.  Spacey joked on The Colbert Report that as House Representative, his character accomplished more than the current do-nothing Congress, which is pretty impressive from the point of view of a House whip.  Why not have made Underwood a Democratic Blue Dog Senator from a Southern state, which is more what he resembles in this series than a Democratic US Representative from a state that has long gone Republican, with the sole remaining Democratic member in Congress being the veteran legislator Jim Clyburn.

What we have here instead is a morality tale told in Shakespearean fashion, with Rep. Underwood often addressing the audience directly as he makes his assault on the White House, determined to topple a weak president, who overlooked him when it came to cabinet positions.  Here again, the President is modeled more on PM John Major than he is any American President, presented as a virtuous man in way over his head in Washington.

House of Cards was originally written by Michael Dobbs, who served in the British parliament.  He clearly referenced Thatcher and Major.  His Machiavellian parliamentarian is Conservative and thinks Major has to go, as he doesn't carry the legacy of Thatcher forward, much less pay proper deference to him.   So, if you are going to take the story and set in the halls of Congress, why not a Republican legislator looking to restore the legacy of Reagan?

I suppose that was just too obvious for Willimon, or having served in Democratic Senatorial and Presidential campaigns, he had collected enough dirt to give him the material he needed.  The most compelling part of the show is not the Congressional policy making but the relationship between Underwood and the Washington press.  This is obviously what Willimon knows best.  Here, Underwood uses the media to shape the message he wants to unseat the President, much like in the original series.

You can't argue with success though.  The show has become such a big hit worldwide, that pirate copies can be found everywhere.  Spacey was particularly upset that illegal torrents had surfaced in India, where the show is quite popular.  Just one more reason for Netflix to expand worldwide, not just in select countries.  I suppose Netflix wants the revenue it gets from foreign countries that pick up its series for local television.

The show is immensely fun to watch, not just for Spacey, but for Robin Wright, as his ice cold wife, and Kate Mara, as the cub reporter who becomes Underwood's conduit to the press, thanks to a blog she started.   The writing is rather juvenile but the acting and directing is first rate.

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