A Whole New Way to Think About House of Cards: 'Throwing Like a Girl'

What "The West Wing for werewolves" tells us about political satire
To avoid spoilers, I won't tell you why Kevin Spacey is standing here, or what comes next. ( MLB.com )

This post will end with the significance of how Kevin Spacey throws a baseball --in real life, and on screen (above). But it will take a little while to get there, and I hope you'll bear with me along a twisty trail.

1) A contrast in styles: drama versus melodrama. I'm watching the original U.K.-BBC version of House of Cards, and its U.S.-Netflix remake, more or less in sync. Right now I've seen about half of Season Two of the U.S. version, and three of the four episodes of To Play the King, which was Season Two for the BBC. 

I like them and recommend them both and will be sorry when I reach the end of either. But as time goes on, the contrasts between them become more evident.) For previous comparisons, see installments one, two, and three.

Ian Richardson, the original FU, with his
trademark line

One difference is simply scale: Netflix offers more than three times as many episodes per season, 13 versus 4, and about ten times as many plot twists, sub-characters, shifts of scene, and so on. It's just bigger in every way, symbolized by the modern HD color that makes the original seem like black-and-white. The sex scenes are far more numerous and explicit. (Which is also a 1990s-broadcast vs 2014-non-broadcast shift.) The characters are louder, broader, and less subtle. Michael Dobbs, who wrote the British novel that begat this whole dramatic lineage, and who worked as a consultant on both renditions of the shows, has described the Netflix version as "The West Wing for werewolves." If you've seen them both you know what he means.

Which leads to the other, related difference, that of tone. If I say it's drama (BBC) versus melodrama (Netflix), that sounds like a put-down but isn't. And remember, I am the farthest thing from a knee-jerk "Oh, the Brits are so classy!" guy. It's a difference in the palette with which the characters are drawn. Ian Richardson, as the British politician FU—Francis Urquhart—is a study in cold, controlled malice. As Frank Underwood, the American FU, Kevin Spacey is by comparison hamming it up and camping it up in every scene. For me, he is too obviously having fun—or so I thought until last night.

2) A weak character: defect, or diabolically clever design? By a million miles, the least convincing character in the American House of Cards is the supposed President, Garrett Walker (played by Michael Gill—a capable actor who I assume is taking direction). Movie-and-TV presidents have varied widely, like their real-life models, but except in farces all of them have projected a sense of there-ness, in the Gertrude Stein definition. Martin Sheen's President Bartlet in West Wing and Dennis Haysbert's President Palmer in 24 are the clearest examples: you see these characters and think, OK, I understand how he got elected, and why the people around him defer to his judgment. Garrett Walker? Unt-uh. This guy is a peevish assistant-secretary type.

I had considered that this was a weakness in the show, or a sign of its melodrama-rather-than-drama aspirations. But I have begun wondering whether I'm selling their producers short. It's all because of the "Frank Underwood Learns to Throw" sequence midway through Season Two, which I've just seen and is where the picture at the top of this post comes from.

3) "Throwing Like a Girl," redux. Back during Bill Clinton's first term, I wrote an Atlantic article called "Throwing Like a Girl." I had a wonderful time reporting it, since that involved: interviewing the actor John Goodman (a former athlete who had learned to throw with his left had for his movie role as Babe Ruth); sitting with the tennis coach Vic Braden to watch bio-mechanics videos about the "kinetic chain" that leads to a proper throwing motion; and learning the simple trick that can make almost anyone "throw like a girl." You'll have to check out the article to see what that was.

The article began when I saw side-by-side front-page photos of Bill and Hillary Clinton throwing out the first pitch at season-opening baseball games and wondered why they threw so differently. The obvious-when-you-think-about-it conclusion I came to was this:

Throwing is a motion nearly anyone can do, but that no one starts out knowing how to do. That is, it is not like crawling or walking -- which children innately figure out -- and is like riding a bike, which anyone can do but only with opportunity and practice. (If you've never seen a bike, you're not going to be able to ride one. The first dozen times you try, you are going to fall down.) For whatever reason, the typical 12-year-old boy has spent more of his life throwing balls, stones, and sticks than the typical 12-year-old girl. Thus more boys than girls learn how to throw, and more girls than boys throw the way you do if you don't know how.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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