Most striking is the change in tone. Netflix’s House of Cards is a drama, a thriller, even a tragedy, deeply earnest and strikingly dark, clearly reaching for some kind of mix between All the President’s Men and The Godfather. The BBC’s House of Cards, on the other hand, is a razor-taloned satire, the blackest black comedy since Dr. Strangelove. While Netflix’s version has its funny moments, the British version is black comedy at its unadulterated best; it’s utterly hilarious, but its funniest moments are also its most horrible, and the comedy builds relentlessly until the show suddenly turns on us, and slaps us in the face with a shocking climax that brings home in the most brutal fashion the weight of all the horror we’ve been laughing at (no, I won’t give it away, but suffice it to say that it outdoes the climax of its American remake by light years).
The difference is personified in the series’ central roles. Spacey’s Underwood is a Machiavellian shark, a player of the highest order who takes his job very, very seriously and is very, very good at it. He is a consummate operator in the finest tradition of the American backroom wheeler-dealer, willing to say anything to make a sale.
His British counterpart is Francis Urquhart (pronounced Urk-hurt, and yes, that his initials are F.U. is deliberate), played by Ian Richardson in what is unquestionably his greatest performance. Urquhart is not a shark – he is pure evil, a Mephistopheles for the modern age. Clearly based on Shakespeare’s Richard III, he has none of Spacey’s angst-ridden drive; instead, he revels in the evil he commits, and so do we, taking a corrupted pleasure in watching him knock down his rivals one by one as he clears the path to ultimate power. We feel for Spacey’s Underwood because he seems to have some semblance of humanity beneath the ruthless exterior, but we feel for Richardson’s Urquhart because – like Richard – he seems to be having so much fun. He’s evil because he enjoys it; and for awhile, so do we.