Over the last few days I’ve been obsessed with catching the US version of BBC TV’s House of Cards, all 13 episodes of which have been made available exclusively on Netflix. Given the variable quality of American remakes of British shows (from the awful Life on Mars to The Office, which in many ways was much better than the UK version), and the high regard the original is still held in, this version has much to live up to. The question is, does it?
The first thing to say is that this is not a straight remake. Yes, the essential plot details are the same. Congressman Francis Underwood (played by the mighty Kevin Spacey), passed over for a Secretary of State job plots to take over as Vice President by fair means or (mostly) foul. Yet there are big differences.
The 13 episodes allow for greater depth of character to be explored. Peter Russo, Underwood’s major political pawn, is a case in point. We can understand more fully the hold that Underwood has over him and how [SPOILER ALERT] his demons are used against him to ultimately bring his downfall.
But do we really need such deep character exploration in all cases? Is Underwood out for power for its own sake or because he wants to create a legacy – ‘nothing lasts forever’ is a theme of the show. We simply don’t know, and with a character as untrustworthy as Underwood, can we ever? In fact it’s where there is an attempt at exploring his character, in episode 8, that the pace of the previous 7 episodes lags, and it doesn’t really recover until around episode 10.
Subplots involving Underwood’s wife Claire’s affair with a photographer and her growing conflicts with her husband, while adding greater depth to the character than that of Francis Urquhart wife in the BBC version, who was more of a straightforward Lady Macbeth figure, also serve to slow things down a touch.
The role of the media, and in particular reporter Zoe Barnes, is also different. There is recognition that in the age of Twitter, print media, particularly printed hard news, is dying. Barnes is also less naive than her British counterpart, Mattie Storin. Her relationship with Underwood is less bizarre than that between Storin and Urquhart, and as great as Ian Richardson was in the role, Spacey makes the more convincing seducer.
Stylistically, the show feels more relevant. Richardson’s Urquhart was more arch than Spacey’s Underwood, and with our renewed cynicism with politics this seems perfectly timed. House of Cards (US) is The Thick of It to House Of Cards (UK) is Yes Minister.