House of Cards: Brit and US

You’ve got to give it to Netflix. Their going full bore, with an independent production of House of Cards; their offering it, at least the first 13 episodes, all at once. Impressive, in conception and execution. You go Netflix.

The BBC House of Cards was wicked. At least, that was how we remembered it. So we’ve begun watching it again after binge watching the newly released Netflix version.

Thirteen episodes (and more to come) of Kevin Spacey being an American Old FU. That was the character’s name, a political whip as well, in the English version: Francis Urquhart.

We were prepared not to like the American version, but it turned out, after several doubts were quelled, to be very good. The writing is sharp, the characterizations darker in a way very different from the Brit version; in general, more frankly seamy, less surrealistic. The directing and production values of current high quality.

This is a different time, more is allowed and expected on TV dramas, and the American political stage is so much larger and more disturbing. The writer of the novels, Michael Dobbs, an advisor to Thatcher, is now a member of the House of Lords. Baron Mike is a very clever fellow. He understands the Machiavellian lurking just beneath the surface in politics and is devilish in taking it one step further.

Spacey would not have been my choice for the part, although the producers said he was their first choice, as was the rest of the cast. Spacey has an amorphous presence and a purring, voice-over quality to his speech that lacks Ian Richardson’s flintiness. But Spacey finally managed to slither satisfyingly, adopting the reptilian stink eye.

Kate Mara, the 24 geek grrrl, is very good as the at-least-as-ambitious-as-everybody-else blogger / reporter. Everybody is a careerist zealot, everybody ruthless, no good guys. Just what you like in pop entertainment. House of Cards satisfies that cynicism we have about politics, politicans and the “media power elite.”

But that is the real problem in updating the story and resetting it in America – they left out the obvious references to Obama, to the American media. The pathological symbiosis between those two players in real life produced a brain-dead journalism in the last two elections; a celebrity press without honor and a self-absorbed individual, with no leadership skills, winning the presidency, a second time no less, in one of the dirtiest campaigns on record.

As an example: Did you see Steve Kroft’s Obama interview on Sixty Minutes? This interview was paradigmatic of the current political mess, where ideas are not challenged nor discussed; a spectacle of journalistic self-immolation. The whole circumstance begs for parody.

Mara’s character should have been a very young NYT “reporter,” acting instrumentally as a campaign propaganda minister. Just like in real life. There could then have been an old style Ben Bradlee type appalled at what his newsroom had become; appalled at the support higher-ups offered the superficiality. The hardly virtuous past meets the poisonous present.

I don’t think those Ben Bradlee types exist anymore in the American media, which is really a celebrity press, good at erecting media personality constructs, not good at critical thinking.