12 February 2013

House of Cards

Years back, I watched the British show "House of Cards" and I was impressed.  Now I have watched the first season of the US version and I'm even more impressed.  You have to have Netflix to watch it and if you don't you should pony up a one month $8 subscription to watch it (you can cancel immediately after you are done).  There are 13 episodes in season 1 and, God willing, enough of you out there will watch it so that Netflix will see the series to its end (probably three seasons like the British version).

In some ways, the American version follows the British version.  For instance, in both the main character (British: Francis Urquhart / American: Francis Underwood) is the majority whip and, after helping someone else get elected to the highest office in the country, expects to be placed in major position in the cabinet.  Instead, they are both betrayed by the person they helped get elected and this becomes the major motive for everything they do thereafter.  As well, both manipulate a young female reporter by seducing her (with the full knowledge of their wives).

There are major differences as well.  In the American version we see much more of the wife's life than I remember from the British and yet, I get the feeling that the American wife is much more out of the loop than the wife in the British version.  The American has a lobbyist play a prominent role. Of course, the actual political positions and organization of the governments are very different; obviously, the British Francis would never be involved in running someone for governor.  And, it was clear from the beginning that the British Francis was evil.  The American Francis?  You'll have to watch to figure that out.

Things that impressed me:  (1) Francis Underwood is a Democrat.  I admit that I was surprised by this.  Urquhart was a Conservative and I figured this, combined with the normal proclivities of Hollywood and the current composition of the House, would mean that Underwood would be a Republican.  Of course, Underwood does have to be the same party as the President, but since they clearly went out of their way to make the President in the show not the current occupant of the office they could have filled the position with a Republican.  All-in-all, it is something of a bold choice that Underwood is a Democrat. (2) They do an excellent job of breaking the fourth wall.  It helps you see into the thoughts of Underwood without causing the story to break stride.  (3) This is incredibly well acted by all involved, particularly by Kevin Spacey as Underwood.  (4)  It's a very rich world in which layer upon layer of depth is uncovered as schemes and counter-schemes interact.  (5) With the exception of one glitch (see infra), this is amazingly well written.  It's hard not to just keep watching until you get to the end of all 13 episodes and when they were over I wanted more (never fear season 2 has already been ordered by Netflix).  I tried to limit myself to two episodes a day, but I must admit that I spent a good portion of Sunday watching the last five.

Things that annoyed me:  (1)  They made Underwood a Southerner - from a State where (in the real world) all the representatives save one are Republicans.  You'll note that no one else in the entire show speaks with a southern accent.  It's an annoying reliance on the corrupt/evil Southern politician trope and I admit to being disappointed by its use.  It would have been better if they'd made Underwood from Illinois or Maine or Oregon and thus avoided the stereotype.  (2) Apple, Apple, and more Apple.  I don't know how much Apple paid for product placement, but WOW.  I don't think the show ever goes fifteen minutes without an iPhone or iPad or Mac or Macbook Air being on the screen - with the Apple symbol prominently displayed.  Every congressional office has Macs in frame on the desks of staffers and the congressman.  By halfway through the season, I was waiting for the bum on the street to pull out an old orange iBook out.  Nobody in this world has even heard of Linovo or Samsung, although Blackberry does shoehorn its way in by the end.

These first two are just annoyances, but there one time when the show goes off the rails.  Underwood goes back to the Military Academy he graduated from and spends the night drunk with his best friends from back in the day.  (3) In the midst of the drunken stupidity, there's a scene where he and his best buddy from back in the day talk about their homosexual flirtations/relations when they were at school together.  I just about wanted to scream and throw something at the screen.  The scene felt incredibly forced and out of place.  It also felt like the writers sat around (having never served) and thought "Hmmmm.  What would be the natural outgrowth of the closeness of the bond that forms between young men under military discipline? Why, it must be homosexuality!"  Worst of all, it did absolutely nothing to further the plot.  It may get tangled in during future seasons, but it had the distinct feeling of a unique moment meant to stand alone.  If it is tangled in later it will probably be because of people like me saying "WTF?" and the writers feeling like they have to justify that scene.  Hopefully, they'll go the opposite direction and just leave that scene where it died.

Overall:  This is the best thing I've watched in a long time.  When Netflix started doing its own original programming most people got excited about the restart of Arrested Development.  As for me, I waited with baited breath for this and I have not been disappointed.  Now I'm waiting with just as much anticipation for the next season to get here.

BTW:  Unlike the British version, the second season will still be House of Cards.  There are a some reasons for this.  First, Underwood is nowhere near his final goal yet.  Second, the American series is providing a much more in depth look at how all things are happening - primarily by paying more attention to secondary characters. Third, there is no monarchy against which the American Francis can stand in antithesis.  Thus, you can't really do To Play the King as an American show.

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