First watch A new show focusing on a ruthless politician is a stylish US reworking of an acclaimed British miniseries
‘ THE world of 7.30 on Tuesday nights, that’s dead; a stake has been driven through its heart, its head has been cut off and its mouth has been stuffed with garlic,’’ said director David Fincher earlier this year, speaking of the way we have traditionally watched TV. ‘‘ The captive audience is gone. If you give people this opportunity to mainline all in one day, there’s reason to believe they will do it.’’
The director of movies such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network was referring to his new production, House of Cards, financed and released by Netflix, the US streaming and DVD-by-mail distribution site. Netflix premiered its first original series, the international co-production Lilyhammer, now airing on SBS, last year but House of Cards marks the company’s debut as a creator of scripted programming. It’s a seriously highbrow show too, screening here on Foxtel’s premium drama channel Showcase, full of ample delights and as stylish as TV gets.
This expensive, cinematically lavish TV drama, is an American reworking of the 1990 British miniseries of the same name about power plays and dastardly, sometimes murderous, political shenanigans in Britain’s parliament.
But according to its writer, Oscarnominated Beau Willimon ( The Ides of March) it is no mere remake or artless Americanisation or even simple translation. ‘‘ There definitely are some clear things that anyone who watched the BBC series will see that we stole without remorse, and certain archetypal features — a few of the characters and a couple of big plot themes — but it really is a reinvention from the ground up.’’
The series is produced by Fincher, who also directed the first two episodes; it is his first foray into TV and he adds a filmic sophistication full of decorative and expressive overlays to Willimon’s acerbically intelligent story.
House of Cards stars Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood, a deviously bright House of Representatives Majority Whip and Robin Wright as his wife, who runs a charity; she’s as steely-jawed and relentless as her spouse. A sweet-talking wheeler-dealer denied the job of secretary of state, he’s obsessed by the Machiavellian dynamics of power and will do anything to secure it, and will also callously punish anyone who gets in his path.
In the first episode, Chapter One, Underwood, is betrayed by the smooth-faced President Garrett Walker (Michael Gill). Underwood had helped ensure the election of Walker, who had promised to appoint him secretary of state. But before Walker is sworn in, White House Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey) announces that the president will not honour the agreement and will instead nominate Senator Michael Kern.
Furious at Walker’s betrayal, Underwood and Claire, as cold-blooded as he, make a pact to destroy Walker. Diabolically self-interested, Underwood is capable of anything and willing to do anything to become the next president of the US. ‘‘ Forward; that is the battle cry,’’ becomes his mantra, his plan to unhinge the administration.
‘‘ There are two kinds of pain,’’ he says in the opening scene, attending an injured dog, the victim of a night-time hit and run on the street outside his opulent home. ‘‘ The sort of pain that makes you strong; or useless pain, the sort of pain that is only suffering.’’ The dog is whimpering, Underwood talking to the camera in an aside as well as to the animal. ‘‘ I have no patience for useless things,’’ he says, looking down, his shoulders moving, his hands off screen.
‘‘ Moments like this require someone who will act, who will do the unpleasant thing; the necessary thing.’’ He looks up and slightly away from the camera. The dog stops whimpering. ‘‘ There. No more pain.’’
Underwood gives the impression this is not the first time he has used his hands to strangle something. It’s a quite horrible moment but strangely, strangely humorous.
It’s also a startling opening to this wellreceived 13-part series, hailed earlier this year as the future of television when it first aired on Netflix, all of it that is, 13 expensive episodes one after the other on its website, in one big binge hit for subscribers.
The release allowed viewers to watch the entire shebang, (a word Underwood, who hates sloppiness in the use of language, would love) like a 13-hour movie, on a weekend, or spread across a month. And it was reported that other distributors such as Amazon and YouTube and even the BBC were furiously clambering to cash in on a broadcasting future that appears to be online and a world away from old-fashioned TV by appointment.
The series shakes out the idealism of The West Wing and replaces it with the dark and deadly cynicism of Kelsey Grammer’s Boss. Unlike Boss, though — the story of a political ruler with absolute power increasingly unable to control his own body and his own mind as he attempts to rule his kingdom — there is this comic edge to House of Cards. Spacey brings a sly craftiness to his intense brooding, lightening the almost Shakespearean storytelling style. His character uses a Richard III kind of direct address which — as he presents his false fronts to all those with whom he deals — brings us into intimate contact with his true self. We become part of the workings of his duplicitous mind, implicated, co-conspirators in his schemes, and his accomplices.
And Spacey, as one might expect of this fine actor, does it deftly, with flair and gamesmanship, wickedly deconstructing moments for their subtext and, like Frank Underwood, obviously having great fun in doing so.
Few actors can do more with a cheeky raised eyebrow than Spacey. His voice, tinged with a treacly southern accent, is sonorous, somehow channelling Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, a mixture of strength and tenderness. But when he smiles you see the teeth of a shark. ‘‘ I can always save one of us
Kevin Spacey in