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.
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.
The same goes for his wife. Netflix’s Claire is a conflicted and ambiguous character, uncertain of herself and her marriage, struggling with the onset of middle-age and her regrets over the path she’s traveled thus far. We’re meant to empathize, and we do. The BBC’s Elizabeth is just as, if not more evil than her husband, a formidable Lady Macbeth who both motivates and aids her husband in his conspiracies. She isn’t nearly as likeable, but she’s a far more interesting, and – one suspects – honest portrayal of a consummate political wife.
As the above might suggest, the British House of Cards is much less complicated than its American counterpart; but this is much to its advantage. At times, the American version is so convoluted it is essentially incomprehensible. There often seems to be no logic in Underwood’s moves, and even when his plan is finally revealed, it seems so flimsy that it couldn’t possibly succeed. Urquhart’s machinations, on the other hand, are eminently clear, and his road to power – and who has to be disposed of along the way – is obvious from the beginning. This may not lend itself to surprising twists of plot, but it does give it a degree of suspense that its American remake lacks.
Indeed, the main reason that the British original is superior seems to be that it is simply shorter. Netflix’s remake runs for 13 hour-long episodes; the original requires only four, and its concision saves it from the confusion and boredom that occasionally marks the American version. Marginal characters from the original are expanded in the remake well beyond their usefulness or even interest. An alcoholic and drug-addicted aide in the BBC version, for example, plays a small but important role in the plot; his American counterpart is a major character, but he’s a great deal less interesting. (He’s also far less credible. He’s supposed to be a dissolute wreck, but looks like a man who hits the gym twice a day.) The same goes for Underwood’s reporter-mistress, who often seems to be wandering around in a daze, whereas in the original she’s an indelible portrait of tragic naiveté.
The biggest difference between the two series, however, may simply be – oddly enough – a moral one. The American version strives for nuance. It preaches that no one is truly evil and no one is truly good: We live in a world that is compromised by its complexity. Despite all the evil it depicts, it does not approve of it, and clearly wants to leave us with the feeling of having witnessed an entertaining but ultimately enlightening sermon on the corruptions of the material world.
The British version is paradoxically less ambiguous but far more courageous. It revels in the evil it depicts, because it knows that we will, and as a result makes a much more disturbing point: People do evil things, it seems to say, because we enjoy doing them. Just as Urquhart enjoys the ruthless exercise of secret power, we enjoy watching him do it; and when the series finally confronts us with the consequences, we are less morally outraged than shocked by this sudden insight into our own capacity for vicarious sadism and, perhaps, forced to think about it in a way we never would have otherwise. Whereas the American House of Cards appears to think it is insightful due to its complex shades of grey, the British House of Cards is far more daring and morally enlightening due to its stark and uncompromising black and white. It makes us wonder if we too, on some level, are evil, and without a hint of preaching involved. “You might very well think that,” the series seems to say in Urquhart’s most famous phrase, “I couldn’t possibly comment.”