Review: House of Cards

The American re-make of House of Cards is very different to the original, but equally brilliant

Kevin Spacey is Francis Underwood
Jonathan Bracey Gibbon
On 7 February 2013 12:52

With the former Environment and Climate Change secretary's spectacular fall from grace, and our apparent thirst for dramatic intrigue, one wonders if art and life are flowing over us in a spectacular wave of cynicism. We are on the verge of being consumed by TV drama. As The Tubes so accurately posited, 'TV is King'.

Friends of mine spent Christmas and New Year in Australia. Lucky them. On New Year's Eve, on a friend's recommendation, they downloaded the US series Breaking Bad. Fatally, they made the mistake of watching the first episode in the mid afternoon. They carried on through until six, the following morning. Ten hours watching TV, eschewing Sydney Harbour fireworks they'd flown half way around the world to watch.

Of course, I now know that evangelising about the moorishly addictive Breaking Bad has become a trait worthy of remorseless ridicule. On their return, I was also evangelised, and although I don't watch much TV, in a moment of weakness I found Breaking Bad on Netflix and had a taste. I finished watching season five just four or five days later, I'm not sure. What I do know is that, as a result, I am now single.

First broadcast in 2008, pretty much ignored by UK networks, and now on its fifth (and final) season, Breaking Bad is the saga of an under-achieving but brilliant chemistry teacher, Walter White, who, although happily married with a teenage son with cerebral palsy and a baby on the way, learns he has inoperable lung cancer. 

Discovering, as he does from his Drug Enforcement Officer brother-in-law, the profitability of the drugs trade, he decides to have a crack at using his brilliance as a chemist to 'cook' crystal meth, ostensibly to provide for his family after he's gone. The quality of his merchandise is matched by the drama of his ongoing situation as he evolves from ordinariness into madness. 'Mr Chips becomes Scarface', goes the tagline.

Suffice to say, they're right. It is the best thing on television, ever. Better than The Sopranos, and apparently better than The Wire, according to Stephen King. So there. The final eight episodes are being shot at time of writing for broadcast in the summer. 

As the awards for Breaking Bad pile up, a growing audience awaits. One wonders what genius at Channel Four or the BBC passed on this. That will be their epitaph. Worse, given that Richard Desmond's C5 US picked it up for one series, at least. 

The ready availability of such brilliant shows in their entirety either through DVD box sets, or more recently on Netflix, has gifted us'binge-watching', whereby through social networks and word of mouth, huge chunks of quality programming outside of the advertising-driven schedules of conventional TV networks are changing the way we watch TV. 

The most significant such development occurred on Friday when Netflix launched its £100m US production of Michael Dobbs's House of Cards.

As a devotee of the original, which starred Ian Richardson as the wondrously slighted Tory whip on the make, Francis Urqhart ('You might think that but I couldn't possibly comment'), I'd been counting down the days for this US re-telling of the most thrilling political drama in recent memory. 

The fact that Netflix gave subscribers all 13 episodes at once had binge-watchers on both sides of the pond checking out for the weekend to watch all 13 hours - if it was that good, of course. It was. It is.

While taking the best elements of the original: the immorality, cynicism, humour, sex and intrigue, the US version is a very different take on the original. Kevin Spacey is the proto/antagonist Francis Underwood. A Democrat, in this case, with an equally immoral, although more subtly sinister, wife played beautifully, in all manner of the word, by Robin Wright. This version gives her a far more central role than Diane Fletcher's rather more subdued Tory equivalent. As much a sign of the times as a comment on them.

From the original, Miles Anderson's coke-addled spin doctor, Roger O'Neill, becomes a sex, drink and drug-abusing Congressman, brilliantly envisaged by Corey Stoll, while Suzannah Harker's Matty Sorin is re-invented for the internet age as Zoe Barnes. 

Whilst there are subtle moments of levity, this is an altogether darker affair, symbolised by director David Fincher's sombre lighting of the Underwood's grand and stylish but utterly miserable Washington townhouse. There is little light and mostly darkness in the souls of the church-and-fund-raiser-going Underwoods, the joy such as it is, emanating from the relentless progress towards an end that casts a grim light on husbands and wives, men and women alike. 

This is a fabulous piece of work, beautifully written, styled and shot, with a score at times as dark and menacing as Underwood when he's crossed, as hauntingly beautiful as his wife, Claire, Lady Macbeth in Celine.

Despite this being every bit, if not more detailed in its political plotting than the British original, there is no Republican presence at all. While Francis Urquhart was an upper-class, patrician Tory, passed over by a new (lower) social class of Thatcherite conservative, his vengeance is entirely based in class snobbery and a limitless born-to-rule attitude that, ironically, is so gleefully the stick with which the Left will forever batter the patrician Cameron. 

Of course while this dates Francis Urquhart, it still mires Britain in class divide as much as ever. There is no such equivalence in the US. So it is something of a masterstroke to have Kevin Spacey's Francis Underwood as a Southern Democrat from humble beginnings with Clintonian morals. Even if Kevin's accent slips from time to time, Blair style...

The sad demolition of Chris Huhne's political career on the Monday after House of Cards' premiere only adds to the inherent realism of the piece to those already bingeing on Francis Underwood and fondly remembering his British equivalent.

If there is a similarity between the two productions it is in Stamper, Francis' unquestioning henchman/PPS/assistant. The only characters to truly cross over and share that inspired surname, Michael Kelly is every bit as creepily sympathetic as Colin Jeavens' original, and as the episodes roll on, the real menace comes through him.

These are two very different shows, but equally effective and at the heart of both, a savage, brilliant psychopath driven by vengeance, ambition, and willingness to break the fourth wall. 

What's not to like?

Jonathan Bracey-Gibbon is a freelance journalist who over the past 15 years has written for The Times, the Financial Times, The Sunday Times and Sunday Express

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