While on vacation recently I received an email from my BFF, Netflix, letting me know that Season Two of House of Cards was available. They are so thoughtful at Netflix. That is why they are my BFF.
As most will recall, Netflix started out as an online/snail mail-based service providing DVDs for home viewing. Netflix was to Blockbuster as Amazon was to Borders. Later, they adapted to new technology and started offering streaming content for those of us who can’t possibly plan far enough ahead to wait for the Postal Service. Last year Netflix expanded their business model, yet again, and started producing their own content. They produced new episodes of the cult-hit series Arrested Development as well as two original series; the half-hour prison comedy/drama; Orange is the New Black, and the hour-long political drama; House of Cards.
House of Cards is based on a trilogy of 1990’s BBC programs. Actor Ian Richardson starred as the unscrupulous and manipulative Conservative Member of Parliament, Francis Urquhart. The series was adapted by Andrew Davies from a novel written by Michael Dobbs. Dobbs had been Chief of Staff at Conservative Party headquarters in the Thatcher years and the program was set just after Ms. Thatcher left office.
In the American version, Kevin Spacey plays U.S. Representative Francis “Frank” J. Underwood; D-South Carolina. His wife, Claire, is played by Robin Wright. ‘Unscrupulous and manipulative’ don’t even begin to describe the kind of power-politics practiced by the Underwoods. I’m not sure the Underwoods could be described as evil but they are certainly wicked. They are ambitious, sociopathic and ruthless to a degee that beggars the imagination. Rules are for other people and that is true in their professional as well as personal lives. The idea that politicians might lie, cheat, and be corrupt is not new but the Underwoods are far beyond that. These people are scary.
Ian Richardson compared Francis Urquhart to Richard III. There are similarities to Shakespeare’s play in both the British and American versions. The primary motivation of the central character is lust for power. Also, as in Shakespeare’s R III, the title character has moments of soliloquy where, in the case of the television productions, he looks directly into the camera communicates with the audience. Sometimes there are ‘sotto voce’ comments. Sometimes a sly look and a raised eyebrow are enough.
It is hard to describe House of Cards without using Shakespearean terms. I’ve read descriptions of the Frank Underwood character comparing him to J.R. Ewing from Dallas; “the man you love to hate”, but J.R. was a naughty schoolboy by comparison. Spacey’s Underwood is part Macbeth, part Iago, and part Richard III. Compared to Claire Underwood. Lady Macbeth was a dilettante. When Claire Underwood washes her hands it is not a metaphor for ethical crisis. She doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty at all. She just doesn’t want there to be any visible evidence. The wife’s role is more prominent in the American series and the relationship between Frank and Claire is fascinating to watch. They clearly love each other deeply but have a partnership unlike anything I have ever seen on television.
It is tempting to compare House of Cards to another Harper’s Keeper favorite; The West Wing. Both are high-quality dramas set against the backdrop of contemporary Washington DC. But whereas The West Wing depicted fundamentally admirable people dealing with political issues, House of Cards shows us powerful people; who could not care less whether you admire them, grasping for even greater power. The West Wing was ‘behind-the-scenes Washington. House of Cards is ‘under-the-rock Washington. Idealists would be frustrated by The West Wing-style politics. Idealists would become suicidal thinking about the politics as represented in House of Cards.
Netflix did not create the practice of binge-viewing. That pattern has been developing since we started watching series television on DVDs. The “On Demand’ access available through most cable providers has carried us further down that road. Netflix has institutionalized binge viewing, however, with its movement into series content. Season One of House of Cards became available, all 13 episodes at once, in February, 2013. All 13 episodes of Season Two became available last month.
I mention binge viewing because, while the House of Cards episodes can be watched individually, one gets a better picture of the arc of these characters if you watch from the beginning. Luckily Netflix makes that ever-so-easy to do. It’s worth starting at the beginning.
I always take pains to avoid spoilers and this will be no exception. The series begins at a transitional point in Frank’s career. Season One ends with him reaching a milestone. Season 2 ends with him reaching another milestone. Of course the fun is seeing all the comes between. The performances are top-notch. The writing is first-rate. There is enough wheeling & dealing to keep those who like that kind of drama happy. There are enough sexy sub-plots to keep the prime-time soap opera crowd happy. Since I like both I am very happy indeed. The only thing about House of Cards that makes me unhappy is I have to wait 11 months for Season 3.