I’ve been waiting for a House of Cards remake since I saw the first of the three British miniseries back around 2000. It’s simply some of the most fun you can have watching evil work. It’s a grainy low-budget affair, but those are constraints the BBC has learned to thrive under since its birth, producing a body of work that shames that of the British film industry. While I was watching House of Cards on DVD people with better cable packages were watching The Sopranos and witnessing American subscriber TV begin its own amazing ascent in quality. It’s one that shows no sign of dropping off and which is trouncing Hollywood at everything from originality and artistry to social relevance and talent discovery. It’s doing it all with substantially lower budgets than Hollywood, and in the case of basic cable shows often with less money than the networks, which have yet to truly step up.
As Netflix attempts to leap fully formed into this new tradition of quality their first effort is a fascinating and often frustrating thing. It’s caught structurally, between the old weekly distribution model of the networks, and a new model more akin to modern video games, and also caught between its source material and its own strengths and desires. It’s fun, brilliantly acted and visually accomplished. But boy oh boy, that story…
(Your spoiler forecast is light, with a few scattered references to events throughout the whole of the season, and some implicit clues about the British series and its sequels. All in all it should be a pleasant trip for everyone regardless of what they’ve seen.)
The keystone of modern quality television is serialized storytelling and NetFlix’s Whole-Season-At-Once distribution model has the potential to be a uniquely elegant expression of the trust in serialization that’s been slowly and often excruciatingly developed between producers and viewers since the beginning of TV. With it we’re trusted not only to follow stories from episode to episode, but to pace our own premiere schedule and arrange our own re-reruns.
The best immediately obvious benefit of this is that we’re never asked to sit though a “Previously On” or squint suspiciously at a potentially spoiler laden preview of what’s coming next week. But aside from a couple of winks at the audience’s newfound power of instant gratification and the deliberately light touch it uses to develop its B-plots in the early hours, nothing in House of Cards gives a strong indication of having been tailored for this model. This is disappointing but probably inevitable since the show was originally pitched to the cable networks and not conceived as a season-length Netflix marathon. And so when the show’s writing fails it does so not through audacious attempts at a new sort of storytelling but from traditional weaknesses in the quality of its ideas and the skill with which it’s been adapted from its source.
I’m happy to give a pass to the one or two absolutely painful lines of dialog which seem to come with each episode, as well as the already old-fashioned “Blogs vs. Newspapers” sub-plot in the early going, and the fact that, when compared to the rest of the cast, Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood is speaking in not merely his own dialect or idiom, but in his own southern gothic novel. I’m not sure that the last is even a flaw. No; what’s immediately and persistently disappointing about the story is that it doesn’t pace itself well. It wastes time when it has it, short changes ideas it shouldn’t, and starts sprinting too late in the game to make up for its occasional losses of momentum.
The writers, lead by Beau Willimon, have taken as their basis a book adapted with acclaim into four hours of British TV and seemingly decided to expand its plot across this 13 hour season, and a second season already in production (although given that the plot of the second series of the British trilogy has no analogue in American politics they have to do their own plotting to set-up a third season).
For the most part, this expansion results in obvious seams and stretch marks. Some of it works beautifully however. In the British series the character of Francis Urquhart’s wife is largely a confidant, but here Claire Underwood is an individual who passionately assists her husband’s vicious style of politics while having the personal ambition and pride to occasionally be a dangerous competitor. It’s a bright move, and Robin Wright’s performance floats high above the writing’s occasional faults. (One of the show’s few unforgivable mistakes is to set up the impression that Claire and Frank are habitually plotting the details of his coup together off camera, then hinge a crucial plot turn on her feeling left out of his plans.)
Corey Stoll puts on an equally admirable show as Pete Russo, a congressmen whose vices quickly land him under Frank’s thumb. The role is analogous to the original series’ Roger O’Neill and here again the writers do a fine job of expanding the character’s scope. Some of what O’Neill is forced to do is much nastier and cruel than anything that falls to Russo, but Russo’s actions have higher stakes and they propel his story arc nicely as it helps to support the second half of the season. But neither of these much improved characters factor significantly in the final act of the original series and it’s there that its American cousin runs into its worst pacing problems while trying to deliver a meaningful climax modeled after the start of the original’s final act while still making time for characters it has expanded or invented.
Early on Frank tells us that ideology is for “armchair generals”. It’s something he says he has no use for it as someone trying to get things done in the halls of Congress. This is all spit out with Underwood’s usual grim verve during a rushing walk-and-talk soliloquy and so it’s easy to miss it for what it is: A statement of purpose that alternately guides and haunts the show. Because the biggest problem with the show’s story is that its politics are too simplistic to get away with being so toothless.
What does Frank want out of all his congressional knife fighting? He says that he wants power, as opposed to the money that comes from being a lobbyist, because power is what endures. The show doggedly references a metaphorical idea of power as a enduring building, without giving us any substantive idea of what Frank would do with the power he craves. One of the show’s best early hours has Frank going back to his home district. It’s an episode that screams PADDING!!! but it manages to be an effective and memorable episode largely because it provides one of the only examples of what Frank does in the world at large with his power. As the show’s favorite metaphor had already suggested: He’s built something.
Having once championed the construction of a water tower in the shape of a peach in his district in South Carolina he returns to stop the latest effort to tear it down (It’s a vividly feminine peach, shall we say, hence the objections). In the context of the episode it makes perfect sense that we don’t even fully understand why the peach was even built in the first place. It’s a marvelous emblem of pork barrel politics and as a part of the foundation of the political power Frank has built for himself it makes sense that he vehemently defends it. (Later we see Frank using this same foundational strategy by attacking the power plants a billionaire tycoon built his fortune with, even though the plants are merely a fraction of his current empire.) It’s a great character building moment but as there’s no strong ideological bent to the local politics of the peach we still don’t learn much about what Frank wants to do with the power he seeks.
This lack of ideology is pervasive. It’s not an exaggeration to say that past the second episode the Republican party functionally doesn’t exist in House of Cards. With a majority in the House and Senate it’s understandable that we see the Democratic leadership as confident and introverted but we should still expect some sense of their across the aisle wrangling in the Senate: Gathering Republican co-sponsors, guiding the education bill through committees, breaking filibuster attempts. As House Whip none of this would be strictly Frank’s concern, but having him ignore this side of the politics of legislation makes Frank’s reach, his challenges, and his ambitions, seem smaller. Worse it makes the show’s universe less real. And this is a show that wants to be seen as real.
It’s rare enough for a political show to explicitly identify its parties by name, and even rarer for a show to portray the Democratic Party not as ardent liberals, but as the center-right party of Clinton and Obama. These are decent stabs at reality. But the writers never challenge themselves to uncover the dramatic potential in their starkly centrist version of Washington. And with David Fincher establishing the visual tone of your series you better be interested in exploring heightened drama.
The original House of Card’s Francis Urquhart is one of the great screen villains. So far it’s hard to fear Frank Underwood. I wouldn’t vote for him, or let him pet my dog, but I wouldn’t start fortifying my house against FEMA Stormtroopers if he were sitting in the White House either. A Machiavellian approach to the political process doesn’t single-handedly make for a memorable villain and it hasn’t for at least 400 years. Perhaps as a liberal it might be impossible for me to loath a villain bent on creating some leftist mandatory utopia in exactly the same way I loathed the Tory authoritarian wet-dream that was Urquhart’s United Kingdom, but I’d have loved to see the writers try.
If the minds behind House of Cards are building something truly great it’s difficult to see its foundation here in this solidly entertaining but somewhat slight season. There are a few potential clues that Frank might be something of a foreign policy hawk, and so I’ll be happy if a future season ever has him dusting off Douglass McArthur’s plans to preemptively nuke the China seaboard, but anything as audaciously villainous as that would stand to work a lot better if it had been properly foreshadowed here. If we aren’t supposed to fear what Frank is going to do with the power he’s seeking then this show isn’t House of Cards, it’s something that’s already wasted a lot of talent trying to be House of Cards, when it’s more interested in being something else.