TV: UK vs. US Part 2: House of Cards

In my last entry of this series, I discussed the US The Office and what led to its success among a world of failed American adaptations of British TV shows. The Office’s success was a combination of good timing, clever and new marketing, and finding its own voice that was separate from the UK original. In this installment, I am going to look at the most recent successful American adaptation—House of Cards.

Where The Office US started as a direct remake of the UK original and had to adapt its approach to find success with a new audience, House of Cards was successful and unique from the outset. Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of Frank Underwood was far from a rehash of Ian Richardson’s Francis Urquhart, and fact that was obvious from the opening scene of the 2013 Netflix hit. A major factor in the adaptation’s ability to differentiate itself would seem to come from the amount of time between the two versions of the show. While the American The Office was first aired only 15 months following the British show’s Christmas special, The adapted House of Cards aired 18 years after The Final Cut, the last chapter in the Francis Urquhart story. This distance allowed showrunner/writer Beau Willimon to take inspiration from the UK show without the looming shadow of disappointing fans by straying too far from what made the original successful.

This freedom is incredibly important and unique. Many of these attempted adaptations have come either concurrently or soon after the original due to overwhelming popularity. Generally, this leads to American networks copying the British original in order to capture the magic of the original. However, as I discussed in regards to The Office, this never truly works. House of Cards, on the other hand, differentiates itself from the original in the very first moments of the first episode. The original opens on Urquhart in his office, looking at a picture of Margaret Thatcher before placing it face-down and looking directly into the camera, saying “Nothing lasts forever. Even the longest, the most glittering reign must come to an end someday.” Urquhart then smirks, setting him up as devilish and cunning.

The American adaptation, however, opens on blackness and the sounds of a car hitting a dog. The darkness is broken by Frank Underwood stepping out of his home, sending a Secret Service agent to inform the dog’s owners. Kneeling over the dog, Underwood launches into his first of many fourth-wall-breaking monologues, at first seeming to comfort the dog, before smothering and killing it, stating “There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong. Or useless pain. The sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things. Moments like this require someone who will act. To do the unpleasant thing. The necessary thing.” In this first minute, the US House of Cards shows that Frank Underwood is definitively not Urquhart. Underwood takes the sly, cunning approach of Urquhart and goes to it with a sledgehammer before building it back up in his own twisted way.

The difference in these openings not only signifies a change in approach between the two versions of the show, but the very freedom that has allowed the US version to thrive. Beau Willimon is telling the audience that he is going to be telling his story, and not simply retelling the one in the original. While many of the major plot points in each are shared, the ride along the way is substantially different. This brings it back to the root of the problem with so many attempted adaptations—a lack of anything fresh or new. House of Cards not only avoids this problem, but succeeds largely because of its originality. The original is truly a satire of the post-Thatcher British political landscape, with Urquhart representing everything that people at the time felt disenfranchised toward in politics. When he would talk directly into the camera, it was with an implied wink and a nod. The cruelty of Urquhart’s actions represents the cruelty of real-world politics. In the adaptation, however, the satire is almost entirely stripped away. Instead of showing horrific actions set against bright, sunny backdrops like in the original, the sun has gone down and most of the halogen bulbs in The Office are burnt out. It is fitting with recent successes in American TV dramas—especially premium cable shows like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. Dark settings and melodramatic characters are in vogue for prestige TV dramas right now, and House of Cards delivers on these things in spades.

These thematic choices in House of Cards lead themselves to one of the most important elements that makes it a successful adaptation—their protagonists. Both Francis Urquhart and Frank Underwood are driven by a combination of pride, focus, and an unadulterated vengefulness in the face of being slighted. While, yes, these men are ultimately immoral in almost every action they take, it is not this immorality that pushes them forward. Instead, it is pure ambition allowed to manifest in horrifying, immoral ways. This idea is not a new one in dramatic entertainment. The unchecked ruler is one of the most common character archetypes in Shakespeare, and this tradition of antihero protagonists has evolved into what we have had on TV recently in characters like Walter White, Don Draper, and Tony Soprano.

Frank Underwood absolutely fits in with these characters, and in reality, so would Francis Urquhart. Unlike these characters, who all occupy either criminal, or at the very least, private sector, Underwood and Urquhart are characters in public service. In theory, this seems like it should make these characters less likable or compelling to watch. If we were searching for solid examples of political leadership and integrity, these characters would have a lot to learn. However, at this point in entertainment consumption, it seems that successful TV is not working in this way. Viewers are not looking for inspiration, they are looking for escapism through vicariously indulging in these character and their horrific acts. Much like The Office, timing has been crucial to House of Cards’ success. While Britain was ready for a character like Francis Urquhart in 1990, America would not have been. The Sopranos brought upon a major change in American television, and House of Cards fits perfectly into this new era.

The final major reason in the success of this adaptation comes from the most original and groundbreaking aspect of its production and release—the simultaneous release of each episode on Netflix. While Netflix had served as the US distributor for Lilyhammer, they had not released their own content in this way yet. It was a definite gamble, but it has come to pay off immensely and pave the way for shows like Orange is the New Black, the fourth season of Arrested Development, BoJack Horseman, and others. The ability that Netflix and similar streaming services have given people to binge watch shows has changed the way people consume TV, and Netflix’s model for releasing House of Cards was a perfect answer to this shift.

The third season of House of Cards comes out February 27th. The creators of the show have kept their lips tight about how long the show will run, but considering the three series run of the original, this third season seems incredibly important. Will the adaptation follow the conclusion of the original or will we get to keep watching Frank Underwood’s hunger for power grow into the future? We will see very soon, and if the show continues on its current path, I know I will be glued to my TV on the 27th. Beyond all these reasons for House of Cards’ success, the most important is that it is simply compelling and well-made TV.

Words by Zachary Evans

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