Thanks to my mother’s English heritage, and her dedicated preservation of it, I may be one of the few non-British viewers to have seen the original House of Cards long before the American remake. Having just “binge-viewed,” as Netflix no doubt intended, the remake – now the talk of the chattering classes and the entertainment industry – I wonder if this was a disadvantage for me. I was left constantly comparing the two, and while the American House of Cards is good television, beautifully made and surprisingly addictive, it is nothing compared to the BBC’s 1990 masterpiece.
As many readers likely now know, 2013’s version of House of Cards features Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood, a skilled but utterly amoral House Majority Whip who, refused a major cabinet post by the new president, schemes his way to the top over the bodies of his rivals. Along for the ride, consciously or not, are his mistress, an ambitious reporter played by Kate Mara; a troubled congressman Underwood ruthlessly uses and discards; and the one person he never truly betrays, his loyal but conflicted wife.
It has its virtues, no doubt. Spacey is brilliant, as he always is when he plays monstrous but charming and fascinating anti-heroes. The machinations of both press and politicians seem far more realistic than on such idealized shows as The West Wing. And under the supervision of talented film director David Fincher, the show looks extraordinary, with cinematography and production design that easily surpasses most current feature films. Nonetheless, it doesn’t quite work; and likely because it either ignores or consciously throws aside everything that made the BBC House of Cards a landmark and a legend in the history of British television.