The Occasional TV Series Review

I’ve tried. Really, I’ve tried. But I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do this.

house of cards americanEveryone, and I mean everyone, has fallen in love with this series. Except me. Because, I’m starting to think, it’s taken an excellent original version and twisted it so much that it’s become aimless and uninteresting. But there’s enough it’s trying to keep in common that it’s distracting.

Let me explain. The 1990 original follows Francis Urquhart, the Chief Whip of the Conservative Party. In the post-Thatcher era, his party is hanging on to a majority by a thread, and when a new Prime Minister is elected, and Urquhart believes he’s going to benefit from years of loyalty and support to the party and the new PM. But the PM tells him instead that he’s more valuable where he is, passing him over for a promotion. So Urquhart concocts a scheme to take down the PM and other party leadership through a carefully concocted smear campaign that he conducts through manipulation and leaks through a relationship with a young, ambitious reporter.

The new American version is about Francis Underwood, a South Carolina Democrat, and House Majority Whip. He, too, is passed up for promotion when a new president is elected, and is told the same thing. So he hatches a plan to…um…Oh hell, I’m nine episodes into a thirteen episode season and I’m still not clear what his plan is. So far, he just seems to be trying to undermine the president’s influence over congress, and take control of the Democratic party, which obviously would put him in a good position, but it’s so convoluted that you wonder how he’ll ever get there.

house-of-cards-britishAnd that’s just the start of the problems. The original wrapped up the story in 4 episodes of just about an hour. The American version is overblown at 13 hour-long-ish episodes.

Sure, both Urquhart and Underwood are despicable people, but Ian Richardson’s Urquhart is evil while still being incredibly charming. Kevin Spacey’s Underwood comes off as just conniving and unlikable.

And I’m not really sure if they’ve tried weaving gay undertones into Underwood’s past or not…

I know what part of it is: the American version is trying to make the story complex and deep by developing more characters and introducing more subplots so that the suspense will build. And that would be okay if the story actually deserved subplots. Frankly, it’s a simple story, and one that played out brilliantly and quickly in the original.

A key example of this is with the men’s wives: Urquhart’s wife is supportive of his political goals, and knows and encourages him to do what is needed to secure his place in the government. But what she does outside of their home life is completely left alone because it doesn’t need to contribute to the story. Underwood’s wife, on the other hand, heads up a non-profit and is ruthless on her own, and ends up being wrapped into part of Underwood’s scheme to get a drug-addicted congressman elected as Pennsylvania’s governor.

Both men directly address the camera frequently, though Underwood’s asides are usually angry and fail to actually explain things, except for his own hatred of things and people he has to work with. Urquhart’s asides are illustrative, occasionally floral in their description, and act as a window into the depth of his plan. He still comes off as almost completely affable.

I think I know where some of the differences come from: this version was made during this complete congressional stalemate. No one in congress has appeared to be above the fray, and maybe this is just a grander statement on that. But if that’s the case, this isn’t the story to portray that.

I think I’ll fight through the rest of the episodes of the American version, because I am over two-thirds of the way through. But I went back and watched one episode of the original and found it light and intriguing by comparison. I suppose there’s a chance that things could completely change in the last few episodes, but I’m prepared to be disappointed.

Then I’ll have to consider if I’ll watch the next season of the show.

See you tomorrow.