No spoiler-alerts needed here. We refuse to give away the goods. Only a week has gone by since the Netflix release of the new "House of Cards" and we have watched all thirteen episodes in a state of heightened pleasure. This is the best thing I've seen on television since "Mad Men." The script is very smart and so is the cast, beginning with Kevin Spacey as Congressman Francis Underwood (South Carolina, a Democrat), Robin Wright as the resourceful and cunning straight-faced Mrs. with the butch haircut and Kate Mara as the feisty reporter with the perfect source for a scoop. We promise to keep radio silence. We've also watched -- multiple times -- the old (1990) British series of the same name (with Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhardt, the Tory Party's chief whip). We loved both versions of "House of Cards," and as both are streaming on Netflix, we recommend warching them, in either order. But be prepared to lose a lot of hours that could otherwise have gone into reading "The Brothers Karamazov" or "Bleak House."
The we here is neither editorial nor royal but factual; Stacey and I watched the new HOC together at our own pace, which averaged out to 2.16 episodes a night. Six nights are better than a binge, though it is easy to see why the issue has surfaced. This is living-room entertainment of the highest order. Seeing it with a companion adds tremendously to the pleasure if you're anything like us. My wife knows her "television conventions," as she'll be the first to admit, and she is almost always right when she anticipates a plot development that would have taken me by surprise.
Very soon in the first episode you can tell that the American version (the AV for short) and the English (EV) are completely different in tone. What surprised me was how different the series are in plot and character as well -- so much so that you might risk a few generalizations on the basis of a comparison. The English version relies on wit, bite, satire. There is a nasty sado-masochistic undertone in the way the inimitable Ian Richardson wields power ("I put a bit of stick about"). Richardson -- as the FU figure at the center of the action who is also our chief narrator, making frequent asides to the viewer --- dominates. It is black humor in the stiff-upper-lipped English manner. And because it is technically a comedy, you suspend your ethical sense. You identify yourself with an incorrigibly charming but thoroughly despicable master of deceit.
The AV, twenty three years younger, is naturally more sophisticated in visual presentation. Equally naturally, the AV reflects certain all-important digital facts that were unknown in 1990: the cell phone, the text message, the increased surveillance of the civilian population, the rate of acceleration in technological upheaval. These are the inevitable changes brought on by time and a bigger budget. But there are changes in spirit dictated by differences in the national temper. The English version radiates charm and a certain amount of Schadenfreude. The American version is filled with heartache and bile, guile and guilt.
In contrast to the EV, with its London cool, its cheerful irreverence signaled in the trumpet fanfares of the theme music, the AV is saturated with Washington, DC, a place that considers itself the center and capital of the Western world. The AV has its dark humor, but it is fraught with high anxiety, tension, heartbreak, the possibility of redemption or the premonition of tragedy. In the EV, sex is a sport, indulged in for robust pleasure, forbidden or otherwise, and sexual infidelity parallels political treachery. In the AV, sex is many things, but a sport is not one of them. Sex in the AV can involve infatuation, redemption, desperation, hostility, or the weakness of an addiction, which is also a paying profession. The thematic linkage of prostitution to politics is established early on in the AV and is powerfully sustained. Addiction is a key plot element. In the EV, we have the irony of a government minister routinely breaking the law by snorting cocaine and funding the habit at his party's expense. It is a proof of his weakness and seals his doom as a mere instrument of someone else's power. In the AV it is not an irony but a tragedy when a recovering alcoholic drops off the wagon -- and it is entirely possible that his AA sponsor will betray him when the stakes are down.
Spacey, a brilliant actor at his best (except when he forgets his South Carolina accent), has his asides, but there are fewer of them, and they do not resemble theatrical soliloquys. He is masterful when he has to shuttle between his home district and a labor dispute in Washington. Ruthless he is, but vulnerable as well. Robin Wright as Clare Underwood is a far more complicated mystery than the deliciously diabolical Diane Fletcher, who gives Lady MacBeth a run for the money as Elizabeth Urquhart in the EV. We see Elizabeth entirely in relation to her husband's aspirations and the obstacles in his path. But Clare, though in cahoots with her husband, has her own professional identity, her own lover, and her own agenda, which can clash with his. There is a scene where she visits a trusted former aide of her husband's, who is dying in his hospital bed. I refuse to say another word about that scene here but I know we will want to to talk about it sometime. That is true as well of the scene at the military academy that Francis Underwood attended, the Citadel -- I mean the Sentinel -- where they sing Dixie when they're feeling patriotic, and the boys get drunk and two of them remember just how close they had once been.
This was the first time I heard one woman call another "a twitter twat." Ditto the joke told by the owner of the "Washington Herald" (they mean the "Post" but my guess is they didn't get permission). The last line of the joke is, "Where do you come from, cunt?" The newspaper owner is a woman. On the other hand, the crack about "sleeping your way to the middle" could have been left on the cutting room floor.
There are so many moments or sequences that one would like to single out for praise. Several characters are interesting enough to warrant a thousand words of speculative analysis. Journalist Zoe Barnes played by Kate Mara, for one; the Pennsylvania congressman played by Corey Stoll, for another. But I will end this note by recalling the speech Kevin Spacey makes at a church in his own congressional district where a tragic accident (and potential public relations disaster) has occurred. The speech is brilliant and brilliantly delivered, and by "brilliant" here I should explain that I mean something very unusual. The rhetoric is effective politically in winning sympathy for the speaker but it also manages the crisis in a way that enables the victim's parents to come to terms with calamity. The ironies mount up; a bad guy can do a good deed for unholy ends. In the middle of the speech Spacey turns to us, the viewers, his confidantes and confreres, to make sure we get it, and we do: See, it's all cynical -- even or especially this oratory that helps a community heal. I wondered, watching the scene, and I wonder still whether it would have been better without the Brechtian interruption. What do you think O reader? -- DL