Oh Netflix, why not do something new?

The novelty of this video-rental service making its own shows is undermined by the fact that it has opted to do a remake.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

It has been something of a mixed week for resurrection-led revolutions, it seems.

The headlines have been dominated by the confirmation, by a team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester, that remains found last year are those of Richard III, who will forever more be known as the ‘King of the Car Park’. We were informed that the discovery would transform our understanding of the maligned monarch, infamous from Shakespeare for being ‘rudely stamp’d…deformed, unfinished’. The conclusion, disappointingly, is that the poet took some licence with Richard’s scoliosis, but not a vast amount else. Now everyone has to work out what to do with the skeleton. History: it’s just one bony thing after another. 

If it might be a further unnecessary insult to the Bard to describe this saga as Shakespearean, his influence lingered on in the other revolution unfolding this week. The author Michael Dobbs apparently had Richard in mind when he created the character of Francis Urquhart, the malevolent Conservative MP who schemes his way through his Cabinet rivals in Dobbs’ House of Cards trilogy of books, and it was an image carefully maintained when the acclaimed Shakespearean actor Ian Richardson played Urquhart onscreen in the legendary 1990 British TV series.

So successful was the series that Dobbs had to resurrect the character of Urquhart, who had been killed off at the end of the first novel in the trilogy. Urquhart rose from the dead again this week, albeit under an assumed name and with a funny accent, as the much anticipated/dreaded US remake hit our screens.

American adaptations of classic foreign shows are nothing new, of course. Yet what makes House of Cards unique is that it has been premiered over the internet on Netflix, with all 13 episodes released simultaneously, rather than through any traditional broadcaster. (The show is not Netflix’s first foray into making its own content, though, having produced Sopranos spin-off Lilyhammer last year.) The series is no mere novelty, however, designed to show off the medium rather than the message. Produced by David Fincher, director of Seven, Fight Club and The Social Network, the show’s cast features Kevin Spacey as the latter day Urquhart (now rechristened Underwood) and Robin Wright as his equally conniving wife. The new House of Cards has the production values and creative pedigree to rival anything put out by heavyweight channels HBO or AMC.

For all that, however, for most connoisseurs of such programmes it is perhaps difficult to feel as though the world has been turned upside down. Netflix, after all, is not that different from subscription channel HBO, and its splurge release is a clear attempt to mimic the binge-viewing DVD habits which so fuelled the success of The Wire, Mad Men, et al. With Netflix available on smart TVs, it’s clear this new show isn’t really a game-changer when it comes to how we consume TV series.

So, while the industry itself watches this development closely, most viewers will be paying closer attention to the quality of the product. It is not, in truth, a terrible update, though it might be a little puzzling for those familiar with the original. The power of Richardson’s Urquhart lay in how powerfully he evoked a certain reassuring vision of British statecraft: his ruthless scheming, offset by a cool confidence in his frequently arch asides to the audience. 

The original show was carefully calibrated to appeal to the anxieties of a British political life in upheaval, with the plot seemingly a direct mirror of the real-world infighting of the Conservative Party, which had just replaced Margaret Thatcher as its leader. The first episode, in fact, showed the Tories replacing Thatcher with a weak but indecisive leader: two days later, the real party voted in John Major.

Much of that punch is lacking from the remake, where, at a push, you might guess it is set in a parallel universe where John Kerry was elected in 2004. There are numerous anguished discussions among journalists about the rise of the internet and blogging. The villainy of Underwood’s wife is underscored by the fact that she seems to be engaged in shady dealings at an environmental charity she runs. The original House of Cards was certainly not a subtle show – interspersing its scenes of political skullduggery with shots of scurrying rats – but this version is ultra-cautious to avoid seeming politically partisan. 

Whereas the original provided an exaggerated populist critique of the elite – that, beneath it all, the Tories really were murdering, thieving scum – here the focus seems to be on very elitist critiques of the elite (down to the tedious Congressional wranglings that provided an excuse for much of Obama’s disappointing first term). Ultimately, the show has to rely heavily on Spacey hamming it up in that increasingly mirthless Great Actorly way of his to give it some oomph.

With its stilted, stagey dialogue and moody lighting, it seems as though this series is going for thoughtful moral ambiguity and depth. Instead, you actually find yourself yearning for Underwood to out himself as a gun-toting, Rand-spouting hick maniac or for a Homeland-style Shifty Arab to show up just to give us a proper villain to be beguiled by.

For all that, however, there is no doubting House of Cards‘ polish and effectiveness as drama, and it will surely retain the capacity to throw in a few absorbing shocks and deviations from the original along the way. Rather like the US version of Danish crime drama The Killing, the failing here is not that the barbarian Yanks have desecrated an original treasure, but merely that its makers have been too faithful and careful to seize control of it for an American context. House of Cards will probably go down as a significant footnote in the history of TV’s continual development. But it’s only when Netflix stops rooting around in the dust for some interesting scraps and starts to produce some genuinely confident, original drama of its own that it will be able to class itself as a genuine force.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist. 

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