Frank Underwood has no such cultural gravity. He’s an up-by-his-bootstraps conservative Democrat—a reasonable choice given the differences between British and American political ascension, but a diminishment nonetheless. In place of Urquhart’s Shakespearean asides, Underwood delivers cornpone homilies that tend to be funny in precisely the wrong way—not witty, but ridiculous. (“They talk, while I sit quietly and imagine their lightly salted faces frying in a skillet,” he seethes at one point, irked by his adversaries.) He frequently comes across, to borrow the memorable term deployed by John J. DiIulio Jr. following his brief stint in the George W. Bush White House, as a kind of “Mayberry Machiavelli.”
Underwood has no meaningful ideology or purpose beyond the acquisition of power. Like his predecessor, he occasionally dabbles in homicide, but he poses no evident threat to the body politic itself. Two seasons in, he has not yet sought to start a war or turn back the clock on civil rights or otherwise realign the course of the nation. He’s a pro-Establishment centrist—essentially a southern-fried version of Steny Hoyer, the current Democratic whip. What’s so scary about a guy like that?
The rest of the cast of the Netflix version has been similarly declawed. Urquhart’s wife, Elizabeth, is a remote and terrifying figure, Lady Macbeth without the moral scruples; Underwood’s wife, Claire, is a more complicated but ultimately less compelling character who spends much of the second season tangled in a web of backstories about sexual assault and abortion. Urquhart’s primary flunky has likewise been humanized beyond recognition. The original, the junior whip Tim Stamper, is a vile little reptile; Underwood’s chief of staff, Doug Stamper, is lovelorn, conflicted, and a recovering alcoholic. And so on down the line. The Americanized characters are primed for soap opera, not for satirizing a political system.
Indeed, as Underwood faced off against an insidious billionaire with the ear of the president in Season Two, one could even feel the tug of precisely the kind of earnest political saga that the British original turned on its head, the “one honest man” narrative that has dominated American political fiction for well over a century. The critic Christopher Lehmann has described the “strikingly continuous American political fable [that] pitches a political naif’s fateful interest in the machinery of reform against the backdrop of irredeemably fallen, endlessly seductive relations of power in the nation’s capital.” That fable dates back as far as Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s 1873 novel, The Gilded Age, and continues on through Henry Adams’s Democracy: An American Novel, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, and Joan Didion’s modern updating of Adams’s novel, Democracy. The same narrative has thrived onscreen as well. One needn’t be a Frank Capra fan to appreciate the mythic hold of his 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, on the nation’s self-image. The movie spawned a 1960s TV series of the same name, as well as loose remakes in 1977 (Billy Jack Goes to Washington) and 1992 (The Distinguished Gentleman). And the Mr. Smith template—of a noble hero willing to speak truth to power—is apparent in countless other variations, from The Candidate to Dave to The American President and its TV semi-spin-off, The West Wing. Even the relatively edgy comedy Bulworth followed the same general arc.