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House of Cards (US, 2013): Chapter 1 (Review)

House of Cards is a classic piece of BBC television, the story of a Chief Whip in the House of Parliament who is so slighted by the incoming Prime Minister’s refusal to promote him that he decides to bring the whole Conservative Party crashing down around him. If you’re at all interested in political drama, British wit or even great television, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Still, I suppose that an American adaptation was inevitable. And, to be fair, you couldn’t have asked for greater talent. Kevin Spacey stars as Francis Underwood, the Majority Whip in the House of Representatives. David Fincher is producing and directing the two first episodes. It’s written by Beau Willimon, who wrote both The Ides of March and the stage play Farragut North, upon which it was based. That’s a very talented bunch of people.

And yet, one episode in, it feels a little uneven. It’s not so much the sense that the new House of Cards seems to have a bit of bother figuring out what made the original so great, nor is it the fact that changes have to be made in translating the story from London to Washington. It’s more a sense that show is really trying to figure out what it wants to be.

Let's be Frank...

Let’s be Frank…

I suspect part of the problem is the length. The first season is comprised of thirteen hour-long episodes. To be fair, that’s not an unreasonable amount of television. It’s about half of what the standard network order used to be a decade ago. It’s the kind of thing that the BBC in the United Kingdom are typically able to manage with their more popular exports. However, it does feel a bit strange to adapt a BBC television show to America by more than tripling the number of episodes. Indeed, the entire House of Cards trilogy in the United Kingdom ran to twelve episodes, one episode shorter than this first season of the American House of Cards.

As a result, the pacing feels a bit funky here. House of Cards is essentially a show about back room politics. It’s about people gossiping and leaking and manipulating and scheming and blackmailing. It’s a show about people talking and how power flows. Keeping the original series trimmed at four episodes meant that the show had a pretty tight pace. Here, one episode in, it feels like not that much has happened. Frank Underwood’s manipulations feel relatively sedate compared to the plotting and scheming of Francis Urquhart.

Who will foot the bill?

Who will foot the bill?

That’s not necessarily fair. Of course one can’t transpose the series directly over. After all, Francis Urquhart topples a Prime Minister fairly quickly in the UK series. That sort of political scheming and manipulation is the feature of the parliamentary system. In contrast, Frank Underwood would have a much tougher time bringing down a President of the United States, let along manipulating himself into the seat of power. So, of course there are cultural difference that make this a very different show.

And, to be fair, some of the best aspects of this pilot play to those differences. There is something very different about the way that Frank Underwood interacts with the world, as compared to Francis Urquhart. It’s a smart move. Kevin Spacey is a phenomenal actor, and he does a great job as Underwood, but part of the reason he works so well is because the script doesn’t ask him to be Ian Richardson. For one thing, there’s a marked contrast between Urquhart as a stuffy upper-crust private school manipulator and Underwood as a hungry-for-blood Southern political fixer. For another thing, there’s the fact that they swim in different waters.

Dial it back a bit...

Dial it back a bit…

Spacey’s Underwood navigates the Washington social scene with remarkable confidence, and we get the sense that its markedly different than the corridors of Westminster. His insights to the camera might share the format with Urquhart’s introductions of his colleagues, but the content is remarkably different. It’s in moments like this – the point where Underwood acknowledges how rare it is for a member of the executive to “climb the Hill”, for example -that the show seems to come into its own.

However, the problem is that there isn’t enough of this. Instead, the show focuses a bit too heavily on the role of journalism in politics, seeking to differentiate itself through the role of the young female journalist that our political fixer takes under his wing. House of Cards seems to be relying on the whole “print media is dead” angle, something that was already tired when The Wire explored it half a decade ago.

Chief concerns...

Chief concerns…

Ironically for a series streaming first on the web, there’s a very palpable concern about the way that digital media has eaten into the old print and ink journalism. When Zoe, our plucky young reporter, protests than print media his dying, her colleague insists, “Then it will die with dignity.” Of course, our blogger Zoe is shown to be easily manipulated, unethical and inexperienced. The kind of thing that would never happen to a print journalist, the script seems to suggest. It feels clunky, an old cliché that felt tired when Contagion ran with the same idea.

This is a shame, because there’s some interesting stuff about the relationship between the press and the political class to be found here – the problem is that House of Cards seems to insist that only a foolish blogger would be taken in by Underwood in such a way. Zoe’s offer to Underwood is something that should make any journalist uneasy. “I protect your identity, I print whatever you tell me and I never ask any questions.” She’s willing to sell out on her credibility in order to earn some publicity and respect. It’s a very legitimate concern about “insider” journalism, but it feels cheap to imply that it is isolated to one class of writers.

A work of art?

A work of art?

To be fair, Willimon’s writing seems to be the weak link here. The ideas are good, the cast is excellent, but the dialogue… feels lacking. Spacey has enough gravitas that he can directly address the camera with as much charisma as Richardson, but his dialogue lacks the sparkle and nuance of the best of this sort of writing. It’s a cliché to suggest that Aaron Sorkin would be better-suited to this kind of political bantering, but only because it’s true.

There are moments in House of Cards that seem a little too heavy-handed. The sermon from the priest about dignity in losing, for example, feels a little too trite and convenient. Similarly, the collapse of Peter Russo feels a little too heavy-handed, something that might have been handled with a bit more subtlety or nuance while still covering the same ground in the same time. Still, this is a pilot. There’s time to improve and develop.

A night at the symphony...

A night at the symphony…

There is a lot of good stuff here. I like the decision to make the relationship between Frank and Claire a lot more transparent than the relationship in the original show – I particularly like the touch that Frank is afraid to admit defeat to his wife, explaining that he wanted a plan before he talked to her. Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey play well together, and I like the suggestion that this version of the character might be a bit weaker and a bit less composed than his British counterpart.

There’s a lot of good raw material here. I’m just not sure that the emphasis is correct. Still, there’s enough to keep me watching. At least for the moment.

Check out our reviews of the first season of House of Cards:

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