If The Thick of It enacts the idea that the lines separating political theater from the real world have dissolved and the leading players can no longer find their marks, in House of Cards all is theater, and tragedy reigns. The original BBC production, adapted from a novel by Michael Dobbs, a former chief of staff to Margaret Thatcher, premiered the week Thatcher resigned in the fall of 1990. “Nothing lasts forever,” Tory chief whip Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) coos in the first episode, clutching a framed photo of the prime minister and addressing the camera in one of his character’s habitual Shakespearean asides. “Even the longest, the most glittering reign must come to an end someday.” According to Dobbs, John Major and his staff paused from campaigning each week to watch the show.
The American adaptation of House of Cards, whose second season premiered on Valentine’s Day, was the first venture by Netflix into production. Like Showtime’s Political Animals, in which Sigourney Weaver plays a goodly, embattled secretary of state clearly modeled on Hillary Clinton, this House of Cards exposes a mutually parasitic bond between politics and the media. In her pantsuits and flag pin, doing bad to do good, Weaver is a figure of reluctant sympathy, an iron maiden in need of forgiveness. House of Cards makes no apologies for Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey, who might as well have an “F” tattooed on one heavy eyelid and a “U” on the other), a languishing majority whip in a centrist Democratic government. Just as Francis’s wrath is unleashed when the new prime minister ignores his recommended cabinet changes, Frank turns to stone when the president he helped elect appoints someone else as secretary of state. In thirteen episodes spun out from the BBC’s four (with echoes of subsequent seasons), Frank colludes with his deceptively creamy wife Claire (Robin Wright), a shady adviser (Michael Kelly) and a young reporter named Zoe (Kate Mara) to wreak havoc and thereby acquire power, which is its own end.
“Forward—that is the battle cry,” Frank tells us. “Leave ideology to the armchair generals, does me no good.” Frank persuades the president that a new education bill is a nice, benign choice to usher in the administration. It’s also a nice, benign choice for House of Cards, in keeping with a modus operandi that favors Frank’s crab-cake rhetoric over relevant or even plausible plotlines. Nor is character at a premium: a viewer might not mind Frank’s lack of a moral center; his lack of an immoral center presents a more significant problem. House of Cards occasionally isolates its players, especially its leading couple, presenting their private moments for our inspection. It’s a soap-opera move perfected by The Sopranos, in which scenes often open or close with a character’s face expressing something—ambivalence, fear, anger—that only we can see. But it’s in these moments, separated from their “characters,” that Frank and Claire seem most like ciphers, their private faces suggesting a deeper opacity.
In House of Cards, politics and media are not in bed but up against a wall, for brief but frequent, vacant interludes. Like Frank, Zoe appears to care only about keeping the ball in the air: copy flowing out and traffic flowing in. Zoe works for a paper called The Washington Herald, which means that despite the presence of real-life broadcasters (including George Stephanopoulos and Soledad O’Brien), we have entered bizarro DC. Sallow tones and gargoyle close-ups give the BBC production’s claustral atmosphere a sleazy wit that is compressed in its antihero’s tagline: “You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.” The more polished Washington version—a noir with a gold and pewter sheen—oozes sleaze but shows little wit. Frank might speak to the viewer, but he never winks.
In this, House of Cards owes as much to The Thick of It as it does to its British original. In The Thick of It, self-interest is strictly micro and trumps ideology without even the appearance of a struggle. There is no bigger picture or larger story that these peons might seek to shape. By 2012, the complicated utility of leaks and counter-leaks holding the kingdom together has itself become the story, with leak-master Malcolm (“I’m as busy as a two-twatted hooker”) Tucker at the center of a parliamentary inquiry. The inquiry and its machinations take up much of the fourth season; both culminate in Malcolm’s testimony. Ever quotable, in this instance Malcolm turns stentorian, and for the first time the show articulates something like a moral perspective on the nihilism it depicts:
The whole planet’s leaking!… The exchange of private information—that is what drives our economy. But you come after me because you can’t arrest a land mass, can you? You can’t cuff a country…. You [the parliamentary committee] don’t like your species, and you know what? Neither do I. But how dare you come and lay this at my door. How dare you blame me for this, which is the result of a political class which has given up on morality, and simply pursues popularity at all costs. I am you and you are me.
In a season-two episode of The Newsroom, Olivia Munn’s finance reporter salutes Disney (which owns ABC, home of Scandal), calling entertainment “one of the few American industries still making a product people wanna buy.” A show like House of Cards, sprung from the loins of 33 million Netflix subscribers, promotes a new industry standard—the bland impetus of data-driven programming. Account data suggesting Netflix users were digging on director David Fincher, Kevin Spacey and the BBC House of Cards persuaded executives to combine the three elements in a remake. Where the original made a motif of rats scuttling through London’s finest gutters, the American version returns several times to the homeless on Washington’s doorsteps. “Nobody can hear you,” Frank tells one such wretch. “Nobody cares about you. Nothing will come of this.” We are meant to shiver at this, the suggestion of a cold, comfortless world. We are meant to recognize the noir sensibility of House of Cards as a darker shade of realism. But this world absorbs too much light and reflects too little to illuminate its subject or the viewer. If the show provides no relief from FU’s nihilism, it is evidence that our entertainment preferences are well accounted for. At a moment of peak ideology and political, cultural and economic division, House of Cards emphasizes beyond its showy cynicism a rare point of agreement: this thing is busted, but we all like watching television. To watch the first season in a weekend, as I did, is not to feel moved or unsettled but a little seduced, a little ashamed. It seemed important, to the many who did the same, that if the show wasn’t particularly good, it wasn’t bad, and there was a lot of it. For a few more viewing hours, the world proved not so comfortless after all.
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