Before You Watch the New House of Cards, Do Yourself a Favor and See the Original

By James Fallows

I'll watch anything Kevin Spacey is in, so I'll be among the early downloaders of the second installment of House of Cards, which will be out via Netflix touchingly on Valentine's Day. 

But now I've done something I should have done earlier, and that will put Spacey-style House of Cards 2, 3, any others in a completely different light. Recently I watched the four-episode original BBC House of Cards series from 1990. It's on Netflix too, and, seriously, if you are interested in either  politics or satire, this is not to be missed.

June Thomas of Slate, originally a Brit, made this point a year ago, and our own nonpareil Christopher Orr plans to write about it at length some time soon. But let me make the point right now: Kevin Spacey is great, but the late Ian Richardson, as Parliamentary Chief Whip Francis Urquhart, is doing something else altogether. It's like a Judd Apatow movie vs. the bottomless bleakness of Evelyn Waugh (eg A Handful of Dust). Here's how the whole saga of revenge and plotting begins:

The comparison between the U.S. and U.K. versions of this program shows something about why I feel so profoundly American (rather than British), but also why the Brits excel at just this kind of thing. There are lots of tough breaks in Kevin Spacey's House of Cards, but in the end there is a jauntiness to it. People kill themselves; politicians lie and traduce; no one can be trusted -- and still, somewhere deep it has a kind of American optimism. That's us (and me). USA! USA!

It's different in the UK version. Richardson's Francis Urquhart reminds us that his is the nation whose imagination produced Iago, and Uriah Heep, and Kingsley Amis's "Lucky Jim" Dixon. This comedy here is truly cruel -- and, one layer down, even bleaker and more squalid than it seems at first. It's like the contrast between Ricky Gervais in the original UK version of The Office and Steve Carell in the knock-off role. Steve Carell is ultimately lovable; Gervais, not. Michael Dobbs, whose novel was the inspiration for both the U.K. and the U.S. House of Cards series, has told the BBC that the U.S. version was "much darker" than the British original. He is wrong -- or cynically sarcastic, like Urquhart himself.

I could go on, but I will leave that to Chris Orr when he does the full-length version. For now, do yourself a favor and check this out.


Explanation for the sub-head on this item: I am not a subscriber to the "Oh, the Brits do it all so much more suavely" school. But in this case I tip my hat.

Previous post                                                                  Next post

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/02/before-you-watch-the-new-em-house-of-cards-em-do-yourself-a-favor-and-see-the-original/283795/