During the Thatcher prime ministerial crisis in 1990, a TV drama series, House Of Cards aired on British TV. About how a frustrated senior politician played by Ian Richardson decided to depose the Prime Minister through a series of measured steps, and ends up taking his position.
Two days after the first episode aired, Margaret Thatcher was deposed by the Conservative Party. The team working for John Major, who would take her place as Prime Minister of Great Britain, and go on to win a General Election in the middle of a recession, stopped their campaigning to watch the second episode.
There were only four episodes of that first series. There were thirteen of the first season of the US version, starring Kevin Spacey. It’s said that US drama is faster, slicker, more defined than UK drama, and that for both countries TV drama of the past now feels slower, less well paced, less likely to hold our attention.
After watching the US version, I rewatched the UK version. And was surprised to find, in contrast, that the UK version from over two decades ago was much faster, leaner, tighter, and a far more rewarding watching experience. I wasn’t expecting that at all.
It is far simpler, but the simpleness served the show far better. Closer to V For Vendetta, we see how Francis Urquhart engineers a series events with precision, even though we don’t understand every action at the time. His wife is complicit in both motivation and action, not just betrayal but also murder. At every stage, Urquhart stays in control, he never lets his grip slip. And eventually it all comes together in a fantastic denouement.
The US version has a larger cast, it involves a wider political scene, but feels much more flabby as a result. And there are scenes where the highly intelligent Francis Underwood makes really idiotic decisions – his TV interview for example – that you could never imagine a Francis Urquhart undertaking. Underwood’s wife, Claire, is much less of a partner. Her role is larger, with her own businesses to deal with, but she is less supporting and repeatedly stupider than the UK version. To risk her husband’s political career – and her own resultant influence -over two hundred thousand dollars of water supplies? Too many characters get handed the Idiot Ball for a scene or three and it harms the whole show.
Both characters hide their true nature well, Urquhart between a genteel upper class attitude, Underwood behind an equally genteel Southern charm, but Urquhart is the true necessary monster, doing what he must to preserve what he loves. Underwood is just after power for its own sake, and he’s less of an empathetic bad guy as a result.
The other two characters deserving major compare and contrasts are Mattie Storrin and Zoe Barnes. The former is naive, the latter is anything but. Mattie stumbles into the conspiracy, used and abused, Barnes does much of the using and abusing herself. She is a far stronger character for it. But that leaves a major difference in their relation with their Francises. It is to his tragedy that Urquhart falls in love with Mattie, and his actions at the end of House Of Cards will damn him for all time. It doesn’t get to that moment after thirteen episodes of Underwood’s House Of Cards, but when (if) it does, will it have the same impact on his soul, if all he has is contempt for Barnes?
The American House Of Cards is a very enjoyable and complex drama, informed by the likes of Deadwood, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. The original House Of Cards had none of that, and was far simpler. Could it really be so much better than the adaptation?
You might very well think that…
The new House Of Cards is available on Netflix. The old House Of Cards is also on Netflix in the UK, but also on Amazon.com.