TV Review: House of Cards

One of my all-time favourite tv adaptations is House of Cards with Ian Richardson and Susannah Harker.  It was a 4-part BBC mini series based on a novel by Michael Dobbs, although the ending was quite significantly changed.  Dobbs then wrote two subsequent books based on the ending that the mini series created.  The series was just pure political perfection.  Exquisite story, superb performances, subtle and understated in that magnificent way that only the British can do.

And then I heard that there was going to be an American remake, by Netflix not a tv network.  On the one hand, every part of me is kind of screaming  NOOOOO!!! inside, for many reasons.  But on the other hand, one of my favourite actors, Kevin Spacey, is going to take on the role that Ian Richardson played.  He will be Francis (Frank) Underwood instead of Sir Francis Urquhart, a Congressman from South Carolina instead of the youngest son of an Earl.

We saw the pilot a few months ago.  I did like it with some reservations, but we didn’t have any of the other episodes so it was hard to fully judge.  But now we have the whole of season one on Blu-Ray (13 episodes), and are starting from the beginning.

My first comment is that it lacks the subletly of the British series.  That is no doubt partly due to the different political structure – Sir Francis assumed he would be promoted to Cabinet, and seeks his revenge when that doesn’t happen.  Frank Underwood was actually promised the position of Secretary of State (which I think would create a vacancy in the House and therefore a by-election?) after helping the President to win – a President who knew even before the election that he was not going to follow on with that promise.  That sets a revenge in motion that has a lot more basis than just delusions of grandeur and a machiavellian level skill at manipulation.

Spacey pulls off the role brilliantly, with charm and skill.  His 4th wall breaking monologues are delivered very well, but with a lot more exposition and eyerolling that Ian Richardson ever did.  The separation of the Executive and Congress no doubt lead to some more complex situations than the Westminster system which allows people to be replaced from within the elected members.  I kind of am not getting a handle of Robin Wright as his wife.  I know that having her work for some ill-defined Not For Profit organisation is more in fitting with modern times than a full time home maker ‘political wife’ in the BBC series.  But (perhaps due to lack of information so far) the character does not sit well with me.  I don’t think it is her performance, it is just there are a lot of oddities about the character that make me a bit twitchy.

But the one that really makes me uncomfortable is Zoey the reporter.  Suzannah Harker was just magnificent as Mattie Storin.  She wasn’t large but she filled the space well.  But Kate Mara is slight and looks – well, she looks like a child, a young schoolgirl.  Mattie looked like a young reporter trying to get a break.  Zoey looks like a schoolgirl trying to do work experience.  Given the way the relationship may develop with Frank, it is a bit cringe-worthy.  And she doesn’t really have much gravitas – she is twitchy and hesitant a lot of the time, and I don’t like the casting at all (unlike Robin Wright who I do like, I just don’t understand the character).  However I do like the way they have updated the media component to involve social media, twitter, blogging, websites, links to scans of leaked documents etc.  That is a great update.

Overall I am liking it so far, three episodes in.  I have avoided spoilers so I don’t know where it will go, but I am guessing that the first season will be similar to the 4 episodes of the BBC series.  I’m looking forward to more Kevin Spacey, he is definitely in his element here and it is great to see him in such a fantastic role.

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