I am a big fan of the 1990 mini-series House of Cards.
I have watched it probably more than a dozen times since it showed up on Masterpiece Theater about 20 years back. I still have an old copy on VHS. I have watched it on DVD. And just last year I streamed it via Netflix.
Ian Richardson made Francis Urquhart and his wicked plans and manipulations come alive. He was the villain, but you could not help rooting for him, or at least being captivated by the boldness and daring of his goal, because he was also the star, charismatic, wry, cheerful at times, sharing insights directly with the viewers. You felt like you were in on his plots.
I also enjoyed the follow up, To Play the King, where Urquhart’s machinations threaten to come apart, though I felt that the third installment, The Final Cut, was not up to the standards of the previous two. But still, a very good and influential series. “You might think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment” is a well known phrase in our household.
And so it was with mixed emotion that I greeted the announcement that Netflix, in launching the own plans to produce original content for their streaming services, was going to remake House of Cards.
Not only were they going to remake the series, but they were going to remake it in an American context. It was going to be House of Cards in Washington D.C.
Remakes can be fraught with pitfalls. Images of the three attempts at bringing a US version Fawtly Towers to fruition came to mind. Snavely Manor, the only one I ever attempted to watch, was appalling, and none of them were anything like a success. How do you take twelve of the funniest and most tightly written comedy scripts on television and convert them to a standard, 22 episodes a season US sitcom?
The answer is, apparently, that you don’t. Not if you know what is good for you.
And that was part of the problem. House of Cards is 220 minutes of very tight and intricate writing. A lot happens in that time and the script keeps things going rapidly to the conclusion. The logo for the new series, a stylized inverted US flag, seemed quite appropriate, as the inverted flag is a sign of distress.
How would Netflix deal with that? How would they handle such an iconic story?
Basically by remaking it in a dramatically different way.
The core story is still there.
The main star, Kevin Spacey, is Francis Underwood. (Urquhart… too Scots!)
He shares many attributes with the Ian Richardson character.
He is chief whip of the Democratic party in the US Congress. (An odd switch from Urquhart’s Conservative affiliation, but it fits.)
The series starts with the presidential campaign having just concluded. In a tough fight, Underwood supported the winner, working very hard to get him elected, having been promised a reward. He was to be Secretary of State. However, in the first minutes of the series, the president reneges on that promise. Like Urquhart after the election of Hal Collingridge, he is basically left with what he already had, and he is furious.
And there the tales part.
In the U.K. the Prime Minister, head of government (and de facto head of state), is the leader of the party that holds the most seats in parliament. (Or the senior member of a coalition, as we have at the moment.) The party itself selects its leader. So the country elects the party, but the party picks the Prime Minister. And the party can change Prime Ministers without going back to the polls.
Francis Urquhart’s plan merely had to get Hal Collingridge removed from the premiership with himself as replacement.
Yes, not an easy task, but one at least obtainable with the structure of the single party in power.
After his betrayal, Francis Underwood sets his eyes on being President, and ruining the current President in the process. However, there is no direct path to the Presidency from the office of the Democratic chief whip of the U.S. House of Representatives, barring an unlikely series of deaths. Underwood has a much bigger hill to climb in order achieve his goals.
So it is a good thing Underwood has 13 episodes, approximately 650 minutes, in order to bring his plans to fruition.
And so their paths diverge. The cast and characters are different.
For example Underwood’s wife, Claire, has a much larger role in the series than did Urquharts’ Lady Macbeth-like Elizabeth. At first it is difficult to understand why we spend as much time with just her as we do, though that quickly develops into a integral thread in the plot.
Mattie Storrin is now Zoe Barnes, and her relationship with Underwood is not the simple affair of the original series, and she is never his devoted tool. There are no “daddy” moments with Underwood. She also represents the new media with blogs and Twitter and instant messages in a world where the press is much more opportunistic in looking for a story rather than backing a candidate that will play ball with them.
The role of Urquhart’s tool Roger O’Neill is quickly filled by the party animal congressman Peter Russo, who looks disturbingly like my brother at times. The parallel is quickly cemented by Russo pulling a trick that O’Neill did in the original series and, of course, by getting rescued and quietly blackmailed by Underwood.
Tim Stamper becomes Doug Stamper, Underwood’s right hand man. He isn’t as coldly ruthless as his U.K. counterpart, but he still goes along with the plan.
So the plot moves forward, slowly. Things develop over time. The purpose of some actions in a given episode sometimes only become clear in another. You are moved by the flow, and though it is hardly rapid, you have to pay attention.
And while there are occasional nods to the original series… Russo’s phone trick, Underwood uttering Urquhart’s catch phrase (though only once)… it quickly becomes immersed in the American-style politics of those inside the beltway of Washington D.C. It is sort of Political Animals meets Charlie Wilson’s War (the book, not the crap movie) meets the 21st Century.
My wife and I sat down and watched all 13 episodes over the course of a week and enjoyed it.
It wasn’t as sparkling as the original. It was a lot more gritty in many ways. The characters were more complicated. The plots and schemes less clear cut.
But that isn’t a bad thing, and it frankly helped the whole thing feel like a series in its own right.
I recommend it if you like personality driven political drama. It has a high quality to it, and comes across as good as any of the HBO or Showtime original series.
I will be interested to see how this works out for Netflix. The put all 13 episodes up on their streaming service at once, inviting us all to binge. Like many, my wife and I like being able to devour a season of a show in a week, piling on a few episodes a night.
However, with no drawn out, week by week episode release, one wonders if this will limit its exposure. Nobody will be sitting at the water cooler talking about the current episode as they might with Downton Abby or Game of Thrones, as some of us will have devoured the whole thing already while others may not have even started yet. Will this lack of shared weekly experience, part of the TV paradigm all my life hurt the show?
The series itself, while chopped up into thirteen ~50 minute episodes, so it can presumably be syndicated at some later date on cable, doesn’t feel the need to end every part with a big question or reveal. There are several episodes where the credits roll before anything going on seems resolved. But when you have the next episode there ready to stream, I suppose that doesn’t matter.
The real question for me, having reached the ending of the first season, which was three years in the making, is when will we get season two?
When you don’t have time slots to fill, ratings to get, advertisers to please, can Netflix keep a commitment to a series like this in a time frame that doesn’t drive us insane?
This is like MMO content consumption! I raced to the level cap (the end of the season), now when am I going to get the expansion?