I loved House of Cards and went back to see the British predecessor. It, too, was quite impressive as F.U., Frances Urquart fought his way to power by any means necessary, including murder. It stretched plausibility at times as did the Kevin Spacy version but it made me feel as if Netflix was the new player in town.
I’m not so sure anymore.
Orange Is the New Black has the seductive Here-Is-a-World-You-Can-Immerse-Yourself-in-for-a-Long Time quality of House of Cards and classic TV shows from The Wire to Mad Men. Prison is a great set up in that sense and the flashbacks that gradually flesh out the characters and help us understand their actions–why Red would hate a somewhat privileged, smug preppy girl (our hero), for example, becomes very clear from her past humiliations–add density and texture to it all.
But I may have seen too many classic B movies sets in prisons or Midnight Express or Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour to buy the convenient division of roles and types that get played out with a pastel tinted emotional palette. Lots of innuendo, little action. Lots of predictability, few surprises. And plausibility seems stetched at almost every moment Piper Chapman, our hero, (played by Taylor Schilling) is on screen with her well coifed hair and model looks. Her cluelessness can be an attraction, for a while, and her former lesbian self and the partner who saw to it that she did time, at the same jail, add a bit of complexity–or is it titillation?–to her character but when the series begins with the shower scene, the inevitable–for cable–bare breasts, and a healthy dollop of comment on them by another inmate we know that pandering is not beneath the writing and directing crew.
That we enter a women’s prison and experience a new form of dynamic, very different from the male prison films I referred to, could be a great plus but when I think of what Lena Dunham did to the girlfriends banding together formula with her series Girls, I feel more opportunities have been missed than seized.
Netflix is full of surprises. First the pricing debacle last year when arrogance seemed to triumph over customer relations and now their first self-produced tv series, if I might use that anachronistic term in the age of digital convergence. House of Cards is a quality production. It works. It captures and holds attention and the fact that the entire series is immediately available anytime for viewing is a huge plus for audiences no longer forced to wait a full week for the next episode of a popular show.
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright make the series. They are omnipresent and their relationship as a married couple whose bond revolves around power and the manipulation of others just gets more and more fascinating. To wait for a moment of complete tenderness is to wait for hell to turn to lemonade. They genuinely respect and support each other in their nefarious dealings, they both clearly love power more than anything else and see romantic love, fidedity, monogamy, tenderness, and compassion as the Achilles heels of those they manipulate.
Spacey’s frequent asides to the viewer draw us into their warped view of life even further and the entire series treats government as a cauldron of deceit, betrayal and oneupsmanship. Spacey is the master these dark skills, save for an amazing moment of melt-down on national tv in the middle of the series. The chess board in the background of several scenes at the Underwood home is clearly there as metaphor for his ability to plan more moves ahead than anyone else. We think we see where he’s going and he consistently surprises us by pulling another ace from the hole and gaining the leverage he seeks rather than the outright triumph he appears to want.
It’s a game of delayed gratification as he plots his moves to avenge a slight delivered by the President in the first episode: he seems poised to gloat at bringing someone low only to show us, over and over, that he could care less about gloating now that he has them by a sensitive genital appendage: they will do his bidding as a freshly recruited pawn in a game that unfolds with a deliciously pointed, powerful pace and yet extends hours after hour. The script shimmers with callous, outrageous double-deaing. Honor, integrity, principle, values, service–the sacred cows of government service are but code words to deploy when necessary and mock whenever possible. The series doesn’t present a pretty picture of politics, nor, to the extent it bears echoes of the world from which it stems–Hollywood or Neflix–of the entertainment industry. Not surprising, that, but House of Cards pushes its portrayal of the abuse of power with a relentless determination that remains rare. I haven’t gotten to the end game yet so I’ll have to see if these comments call for revision but as of now, squarely in the thick of the series, it exudes a fascinating bleakness, a captivating, sordid appeal that seems to match perfectly the deeply disillusioned sense of a people tired of a government that postures more than it acts.