With dialogue as sharp as their suits and as polished as the offices in the Senate, House of Cards is likely to be the smartest drama you’ll see this year.
Adapted from Michael Dobb’s books and subsequent BBC series in 1990 which featured an iconic performance from Ian Richardson, the contemporary House Of Cards switches Parliament for Congress and we follow the chief-whip of the political world, Frank Underwood (something tells me the original ‘Urquhart’ was too conservative), in his dark attempt to reach the final rung of his struggle for power.
Directing the series, David Fincher keeps assuring the critics that this is a ‘reinvention’ and not a ‘remake’; slapping on a metallic soundtrack and using Stellan Skarsgård as a Scandinavian scapegoat (a Swede! Now we’ve got to look good) doesn’t exactly qualify Fincher’s ‘reinvention’, but Beau Willimon’s superb script does. The playwright who gave us The Ides of March invests his experience of political campaigning in an injection of electric dialogue that, for once, presumes you’re not an idiot. There’s a rich vein of acting talent throughout too. Kate Mara gives us a firm and unwavering portrayal of an eager news journalist who uses others before being taken advantage of herself, whilst Robin Wright empowers the role of Frank’s wife, in what appears to be typical Lady Macbeth fashion, only to gracefully wither away to show those ageing moral cracks. And then, of course, there’s Kevin Spacey.
The Slate thought that his 25-year hiatus from the small screen was ‘risky’. Having warmed up his co-conspiring audience with Richard III at the Old Vic in 2011 and dipped his feet into political satire with Casino Jack in 2010, Spacey is far from risky. Contrary to those BBC purists who thought Francis’ catchphrase (‘You may think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment’) could never be uttered by a foreign tongue, Spacey’s southern drawl works surprisingly well. The real strength of his performance however, is in not trying to imitate Richardson’s. With the straightforward calibre of his acting he doesn’t need to. His cinematic character portraits of outsiders on the inside, evident in films such as L.A. Confidential, Seven and most notably, The Usual Suspects, are all prime examples of Spacey’s suitability to the role. It is impossible to fathom anyone else reprising it.
All this talent may guarantee some of the shows artistic success, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee its survival. You can have heavyweights such as Dustin Hoffmann and Michael Mann and still be knocked out of the ring, as HBO’s ironically titled Luck has shown (axed after just 9 episodes). By bypassing weekly scheduling – something Reed Hastings (Netflix’s CEO) calls ‘managed dissatisfaction’ – and making all episodes available simultaneously, this is a fear House of Cards won’t have to realize. It’s a smart move, and the $100 million production costs prove that it is a key strategy in Netflix’s business plan: its entirely self-produced shows, Lillyhammer and Arrested Development, seeking to remedy the $4.8 billion spent on streaming and licensing fees.
In throwing off the shackles of creative freedom tormenting those working in large corporate television studios, the only disappointment lies in the fact that House Of Cards is yet another adaptation and not an original piece of writing. Having said that, with its thrilling pace, introspective character development and pitch-perfect camera work, House of Cards will arguably be remembered for years to come as Netflix’s ace in the hole.
words: Ben Meagher