Sunday, March 15, 2015

Kevin Spacey's House of Cards

Until last week, though I'd heard several people talk about the TV series House of Cards, I myself hadn't ever seen it. Which led me to take out the DVD set for the first season, which I began watching last Tuesday evening. My initial impression was of a tightly written, well-scripted show featuring a major star and a unique device: the lead character's manner of turning to the audience and "letting us in" on what he's thinking or doing, bringing us along on his Inside-the-Beltway power plays.

Now that I've seen six or seven episodes, I feel ready to offer a few observations.

It seems ironic that after watching the first two shows I picked up the March Atlantic magazine and discovered a somewhat scathing review of the show and other shows in an article titled Why the British Are Better at Satire. It begins...

If there was ever an era ripe for political satire in America, the current one displays all the symptoms: rampant dysfunction in Congress; a paralyzed, peevish administration; dynastic ambitions in not one but two families; a surfeit of outsize and frequently cartoonish figures jockeying for space on the national stage. Given the wealth of material so near at hand, I was eagerly anticipating David Fincher’s adaptation of the brilliant 1990 BBC miniseries House of Cards when it debuted on Netflix two years ago. At last we would see biting, eminently British political satire applied to an American milieu.

With Season Three about to begin, it’s safe to say that this hasn’t happened. The U.S. version of House of Cards is sleek and often intriguing, but by now it has made clear that its specialty is melodrama, not satire.

Satire: the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

Melodrama: a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions.

In the former, the appeal is to one's wits. The latter strives for an emotional kick.

The very next day after reading The Atlantic piece the local paper featured a story on the show in its A&E section. This piece struck me as more of a puff piece rather than an indictment of the show's shortcomings. House of Cards is getting ready for its third season and the publicity machinery is in play.

On the positive side of the ledger, Kevin Spacey seems to have been born for this role. In some ways he doesn't seem to have changed much since his role as a hard boiled reporter in the Disney film Iron Will which was filmed here in Duluth in 1993. It was his Oscar-winning performance in The Usual Suspects that put him on the map. Other roles in the 90's included the suburban dad in mid-life crisis in American Beauty which resulted in another Oscar, and the cynical publicity hound cop Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential. And now he's Frank Underwood, master manipulator in the Machiavellian world of Washington.

The show has a 9.1 rating on, so it clearly knows how to connect with audiences. People like seeing things they themselves have never experienced, hence they used to watch shows like "Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous" and now reality shows about cops on the beat. So now, they get yet another show about life inside the Beltway, on Capitol Hill.

Until I read The Atlantic piece I hadn't realized that Frank Underwood's manner of turning toward the audience to bring them along was not original. But then, Shakespeare had done this centuries ago, too. It's called an "aside." Maybe it struck me as original because I don't recall ever having seen it on TV.

Something else that struck me is how loose the standards have become with regard to sexual explicitness. A half century ago Lenny Bruce was brought up on obscenity charges for a monologue titled "To is a Preposition, Come is a Verb." He became a target by not backing down from the edge, by demonstrating the inconsistency and absurdity of then current obscenity laws. Today we have everything placed right out there and in your face.

In Episode 7 (I believe) we find Frank Underwood in a tryst with the young reporter whom he has groomed to be his media mouthpiece. She calls her father to wish him an early father's day blessing as Underwood proceeds to undress her and perform cunnilingus on her. She tells her father she'll "try to come," making other similar statements with double meanings. It's a direct ripoff of a Firesign Theater sketch from the early 1970's. Except in that case it was funny. This isn't funny. And worse, it starts to feel cliche.

The awards this show is receiving ensure that its audience will grow still wider. As for me, it's already starting to make me feel tired. Spacey makes the consummate anti-hero at a time when we could use real heroes. Then again, maybe this is the reality we live in. Politics is a dirty game and we shouldn't pin our hopes on it.  


Pedro Albuquerque said...

Hello Ed, interesting the observation on satire versus melodrama. Didn't watch this series, but I can see the same pattern in other "for America" remakes of European productions, independently of merits of both.

ENNYMAN said...

Good comment. Thanks for checking in.