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As flimsy as a playing card,
This review is from: House Of Cards - Season 1 (DVD + UV Copy) (DVD)
House of Cards is the equivilent of the prestige pictures that Hollywood used to make: worthy, pseudo-intellectual stuff so that the studios would be respected. Generally it was an adaptation of another art form- classic novels, for example. Here, it is a version of a lauded BBC programme.
Actually, I thought it sounded good. The premise of House of Cards- Machiavellan politician ruthless in his pursuit of the big prize- would translate well into an American setting. The setting and new time period (the original was in 1990) make it sufficiently different from the UK version, so no danger of treading on any toes.
The character types are the same: we have the master of manipulation, his Lady Macbeth wife, a coke-addled politician and a fame-hungry young journo. Let's break it down:
- Frank Underwood:
Kevin Spacey adopts a Southern drawl to play the role. It's deliciously hammy, like a Tennessee Williams character. The other characters are completely humourless; one of the show's major drawbacks. At least there's a degree of humour in Frank and the show even dares to mock him. Like many modern day politicians, Frank loves a meaningless buzz phrase and successfully spreads it across the news. Unfortunately a woeful bit of wordplay he improvises in a TV interview goes viral.
He doesn't go far enough in his Machiavelli tactics though; it's nothing we haven't seen before (apart from some dog strangling in the first scene). It's a feeling that recurrently crops up; the sense that House of Cards isn't really anything new (leaving out the fact that it's a version of an older show).
- Claire Underwood:
Robin Wright is the show's awards bait. Claire is a steely ruthless woman who can play the perfect servient wife to Frank and yet have control over him. Claire and Frank's relationship is based on the Macbeths; they are two-of-a-kind soulmates. If they weren't husband and wife, they might be brother and sister. Of course, we've had wives supporting evil husbands before but the characters' devotion to each other adds a softness to the show. It will be a hard fight for ex-lover, sensitive artist Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels) to get Claire into bed.
- Peter Russo:
Corey Stott plays a boring 'likeable' politician, who's just lured by the pleasures of drugs and sex. He has some cute kids so we feel a bit sorry for him but really, why we're meant to be interested in his hypocritical do-gooderness is beyond me. The whole point of House of Cards is that evil and power are not condemned but secretly admired. By having a character like Russo (played competently enough by Stott), the show comes across as wishy-washy.
- Zoe Barnes:
Kate Mara plays an eager little journo who looks like a high school reporter, despite being in her twenties. Zoe knows that Twitter and blogging are the future but her crusty old boss dismisses them as a fad. It's unclear why a major newspaper in 2013 would act as if Twitter and blogging had only just sprung up, though it is at least an interesting fight. Zoe (Mattie in the original) was the most obvious candidate for modernising. Like Mattie, Zoe wants all the goss- a look behind closed doors. So naturally she ambles up to Frank and offers her services- in every way. The writers seriously fumble her character, attempting to make her sassy but really making her irritating. It makes no sense why she would choose to bed Frank seeing as he's already agreed to the professional deal. Spacey just doesn't exude power in the way that Ian Richardson does in the original.
Now let's go into the inevitable "Why the original is better" argument:
Whilst Spacey has a degree of charisma, Richardson drips with it. It's obvious why people would kow-tow to him but not so obvious how Spacey is able to play people so easily. The show is also afraid to make Frank completely despicable, so we get a soppy episode devoted to his college years. Evil is seductive; we all love a fictional villain. The audience's inner conflict between being seduced and repelled by evil is what made the original House of Cards stand out. No such conflict here.
The relationship between Frank and Zoe falls flat. The writers don't give a plausible reason as to why she would start a sexual relationship with Frank, who looks like he could take her or leave her. We're left to deduce that it's just a TV cliche. No offence to Richardson, but what made the Mattie/Francis relationship work was that sexual lure was the one card Francis couldn't play. True, he had power but he looked like an old man. Mattie floors him by revealing her fetishistic desire for him. Whilst Spacey is no hunk, you get the sense that he could still play the sexual attraction card.
Zoe as a character is too weak. She has no power over him beyond the potential to find dirt by being so close to him. Zoe is also completely unaware of her brattish naievity, whereas Mattie was only too aware of it.
The US House of Cards isn't terrible but it has stretches of dullness, particularly in the politics- though maybe it's more entertaining for a US audience. Hopefully Season 2 will patch things up.