Following the launch in Australia of Netflix, ImportantCool associates Kenny Laurie and Austin Gerassimos Mackell, and IC Padawan Jeff Hewitt, decided to release the findings of their intergenerational report on House of Cards, so-called because: (A) IT’S TAKEN NEARLY A GENERATION FOR US TO PRODUCE IT and (B) it includes a comparison with the first generation of House of Cards as a TV series: the BBC’s version beginning in 1990 starring Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart – a character only superficially transformed into Kevin Spacey’s Frank (actually Francis, too) Underwood.
Our panel has engaged in both a critical three-way correspondence (as a sort of homage to the Underwoods’ threesome with Edward Meechum [AKA the “Threechum“] in season two) and a voice-over Internet provider discussion panel, as well as deploying our lead TV watching expert, Austin, in a fact finding mission to investigate the original TV rendition (of what started life as a series of novels by a real life former conservative politician), which found that:
In short the old British one is to the new American one what you’d expect it to be: better written, shorter, more politically informed, and far far less watchable because the production values are so much lower, and the actors, including those whose sex lives we’re supposed to be intrigued by are absolutely revolting to look at… (read more – and see the screenshots – in our artefacts section)
In addition to being the most over thought and overworked TV review in the history of time wasting, the following is an experiment in applying the ImportantCool format and methodology to the realm of culture and entertainment.
Our conclusions can be summarized by the words of chief panelist Jeff “The Honey Badger” Hewitt:
House of Cards is one of the most compelling shows on television, and also one of the most unsatisfying.
That House of Cards lends itself to binge-watching can’t simply be reduced to Netflix’s practice of dumping all 13 episodes in one massive, Machiavellian hit. After all, Netflix did the same thing with season four of Arrested Development, and that was pretty much unwatchable. No, House of Cards is an extremely slick and polished show. It’s beautiful to look at. Jeff Beal’s theme music is both dark and comforting, and the cast is top notch.
The acting talent and production values are so strong that it’s easy to get swept up in this murky world and overlook the writing and storytelling flaws that abound in this otherwise hugely entertaining show. It’s like Barack Obama in that way – underneath all the branding and charisma, there is a lot of BS.
The panel notes that elsewhere more tangible, as opposed to stylistic connections, have been made between the Netflix production and the “‘new democrats” – the most corporate friendly trend within the party, and that from which both Obama and the Clintons spring. We note also that in the original British series FU plotted his Machiavellian way to the top of the conservative party whereas the 21st century FU positions himself within the supposedly progressive section of the political elite, but shows a more than equal ruthlessness and willingness to throw the old, sick, and poor under the bus.
Kenny echoed the sentiment of disappointment saying, “The third series was a bit like turning on a new car’s engine for the first time; it’s nice and satisfying but it’s hard to shake off the feeling that its value has just dropped.”
One area of serious divergence was the time spent on character (as opposed to plot) development in the series with Jeff writing:
Claire Underwood and Doug Stamper were given fascinating story arcs. Claire Underwood especially, with Robin Wright’s ice queen face the subject of many Ingmar Bergman-esque close-ups hinting at the psychological turmoil going on underneath.
Kenny and Austin failed to share his enthusiasm.
In this vein, I disagree with you [in] that “Claire Underwood and Doug Stamper were given fascinating story arcs.” She loves him, she loves him not; takes 12 episodes to get there. Meanwhile she tries to get elected as ambassador to the UN, is confident, then fucks up and isn’t, but then is appointed by Frank anyway, before finally resigning to help with Frank’s campaign (with unexplained magical efficacy), before she decides not to. The only actual decision of consequence she takes is leaving Frank in the final seconds of the final episode. We don’t even see her get out the door. Judging by the writer’s performance so far, that could take the whole first half of the next season, then the second half to come back in and decide which handbag(s) to take with her.
Similarly Doug goes through this elaborate courtship ritual with another candidate, reconnects with his brother and his brother’s family, has casual sexual relations with his physical therapist, all of which are of no apparent relevance to the plot except a feeble attempt to make Doug seem a bit more normal and human in an attempt to add suspense to the final torture-porn-ish episode, in which Doug inexplicably decides it’s better to leave your murder victim alive conscious and un-gagged in the back of the van as you drive for hours to an unmarked grave-site, you know, so she can talk a whole bunch and we can milk it more.
Kenny added to this point:
I also wasn’t a fan of the depth given to certain characters. House of Cards was never supposed to be anything other than a gripping romp, to an almost farcical degree. That’s what made it so watchable. Vice presidents to do not physically push journalists under trains but yet it is the most memorable part of the whole program to date. It says a lot about the tone of the show and what the audience enjoys when such a crazy piece of writing was the best and most enjoyable part of the show’s history. We’re not looking for a new The Wire to change our lives. It’s popcorn and damn good popcorn.
On that note, in their side discussion, Kenny and Austin found agreement that the series could have been massively improved by Frank’s hands-on involvement in more violent crime. They proposed, for example, that after Presidents Underwood and Petrov (the only half-well-drawn but quite watchable Putin caricature) stepped into the basement area to smoke cigars, Meechum (remember Frank and Claire’s Bisexual lover?) should have also emerged and, along with FU, proceeded to sexually defile the Russian president (who had been attempting to humiliate Frank sexually by acting inappropriately with Claire just a scene earlier). The panel has determined that this should take place with the cigar in the Russian premiers mouth “like a horse bit.” It would be ridiculous and over-the-top and shocking, but as Kenny noted earlier, moments like that have been the shows strongpoint so far.
Meechum however seems to simply be kept around, as if on the shelf, barely visible in the third season, except to be a bit jealous of the new man in Franks life and then be ordered by Frank to burn an incriminating envelope (which he obviously didn’t), all seeming like an obvious setup for a betrayal in season four. In general the panel feels that much of season three’s potential seems to have been sacrificed to season four – in terms of the presidential race almost nothing has actually happened, with season three closing just as the primaries kick off.
Here, another comparison made by Austin with the original series, is worth including:
The three combined series of the British show (hour long episodes, too) only add up to one of the three series the Americans have done. Yet those 12 episodes manage to contain basically every idea of note that one will find in the US version.
That doesn’t mean the US version is lacking in twists and turns, it’s just that they often don’t add up to much and can seem artificial. On this point Kenny wrote:
When a show takes arbitrary twists, you become aware of the writer’s hand. You want to feel as if the universe can’t be disturbed from the outside, that everything in the program constantly follows the same logic; the stilted nature of so much killed that Frank going from behind in the polls to neck-and-neck without much explanation would seem a good example.
A lot goes on, but not much happens. Most of the balls thrown into the air in previous seasons (the Hacker, Zoe’s and Peter Russo’s murders, Claire’s underlying dissatisfaction with the emptiness of their life) are yet to land. Therefore, of course, we’ll all be watching the shit out of season four if and when it hits the web, but that doesn’t mean we won’t complain about it.