Something New: House of Cards

Yes. This is the start of something special. A TV series never meant for TV. A series that migrates TV from being a piece of technology to being a genre.

House of Cards is the first original series to be commissioned and shown (exclusively) on Netflix, the popular TV and film streaming service.

Trailer for US Version

And, yes, I’ve seen it already. Wolfed it down across two nights. And, while I was waiting for Netflix to release the series, I watched the first of the original BBC series from the early 1990s upon which it’s based. Handily enough, I also watched that on Netflix.

BBC Version

The series centres on a chief whip – the politician who’s supposed to keep other politicians in their place, to make sure there’s no discord and that Bills get passed. This whip is smart, manipulative, calculated, ruthless and hungry. He wants to get to the top of the greasiest of all greasy polls – he wants to be the nation’s leader.

So, is the US series as good as the UK version? The quality is just as high and the beast is different, due to the bigger length of the US version. Nothing feels lost in translation. It is its own show and lives up to its namesake.

The lead character is Francis Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, the chief whip in the Democratic Party. Part of the show’s format is that Spacey, now and again, will talk directly to us, the viewer. He’s explaining what and why and his explanations are never varnished.

Having been shafted for the Secretary of State position in a new administration, Underwood quickly works to move higher up the pecking order another way.

The person he’s closest too is his wife, Claire, played by Robin Wright. Unlike in the UK version, Underwood’s wife has her own story, identity and background. A Mrs. Macbeth who’s more than just the shadow of her husband.

Also unlike the UK version, Claire isn’t as ruthless as her husband, hinted through various small subtleties throughout the first season.

In fact, the striking difference between the US and UK versions is that every character seems fully formed, probably due to the greater length and wanting to make sure there are enough stories to tell.

The whole series is dark. Everyone, from average Joe to the U.S. President, is a pawn in Underwood’s game. They haplessly fall into place, doing exactly what Underwood wants, without even realising. We, on the other hand, have realised, making it all the more tragic.

That point is further hammered home by the surroundings of our characters. The most successful are the ones who have been the quickest to the hit the ground and roll in the mud – theirs is a clean, rich and proper world. The pawns reside in a bleaker world, tricked into believing they equal the rich elites for their continued obedience; a false promise of a better future. The message is clear.

Underwood, a man from the southern states, likes to eat ribs. He visits ‘Freddy’s BBQ Joint’ on a down-at-heel part of Washington D.C. complete with dirty walls and sheet-plastic covered windows. It’s his escape. Away from his polished, huge D.C. residence, his natural habitat is filthy. He sits, having arrived by a chauffeur driven car, eating ribs and reading the newspaper in his crisp, clean suit.

All the way through, more and more layers are added to the house of cards, making it a precarious situation for Underwood. The stakes get higher and higher and, with the second season already commissioned, they look set to get higher with Underwood perilously close to losing control.

Should you watch the show? Yes. It’s brilliant. Smart, revealing and thrilling. Netflix says their goal is to become HBO, home of some of the best television dramas in the world, before HBO becomes them. While making your first original programme a translation of proven material may be taking an easier option to creating wholly original material, the level at which the translation has been conducted is superb, offering those who’ve seen the BBC version a great, fresh experience.

The other thing this series does is highlight the brilliant BBC series, still fantastic and available on DVD. Frankly, watch both.

The original BBC series is available on Amazon and the US version coming to a Netflix near you!

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