House of Cards Update: The UK Version

ukhouseAfter my previous post about the American House of Cards, a large number of people online and off told me how much better they had liked the British version, so we went ahead and watched it, and now I’m trying to decide if I too preferred it to its US counterpart.

I certainly didn’t think the UK version was itself better in every way: the production values are not as good, for instance, though that follows partly from its being so much older. The plots are brisker and not as complex and thus not quite as interesting or suspenseful: in the US version there’s a lot more to figure out, or at least to wait and see about. On the other hand, Ian Richardson is superb as Francis Urquhart: he brings a sly malicious glee to the role that makes Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood seem pretty dreary by comparison. I’d give Claire Underwood the edge as a character over Elizabeth Urquhart, though, partly on the basis of Robin Wright’s strong performance but also because she simply has more to do for herself, while all we ever see of Elizabeth is the Lady-Macbeth-like politician’s wife. I thought the balance of power in the US couple’s relationship added a very interesting dimension to the series. While being cautious about spoilers, however, I will say that in the very final episode Elizabeth emerges as a more powerful and controlling character than I had suspected — I wonder whether (if a 3rd season is in the works) the US series will follow her devastatingly cold logic to its same ruthless conclusion. Once you’ve made it to the top, after all, what other option is there, besides losing?

I thought the most interesting difference between the UK and US versions is that while both are about politics, the UK version is much more overtly political. For some time I wasn’t even sure which party Francis Underwood belonged to, and given how polarized American politics are these days, that’s both unexpected and (it seems to me, anyway) unlikely. His work on specific pieces of legislation is entirely self-serving, rather than ideologically motivated. In contrast, Francis Urquhart is clearly aligned with the right wing of British politics: he may resent Margaret Thatcher’s longevity (his petulance about her memorial is one of the show’s funnier bits) but if anything he aims to go further than she did in dismantling the welfare state and promoting a competitive rather than compassionate spirit. Similarly, the opposition to Francis Underwood is partisan only in that his congressional opponents would like to be the ones in power, not because they stand for principles other than his, but Francis Urquhart’s opponents abhor not just the man but his vision of Britain. This aspect is brought out most strongly in the episodes featuring Michael Kitchen as the idealistic new king (every time I saw him I thought “Foyle is King! Hooray!”), but the association of Urquhart’s villainy with a particular kind of party politics runs throughout the series. There’s still plenty of cynicism about how the whole system works, but identifying FU so strongly with the right suggests pretty strongly that any hope for virtue or heroism lies with the left.

Why do you suppose the creators of the American version chose to keep real political ideas so far from view? Was it a marketing issue — in such an oppositional political climate, would it have cost them too many viewers to be perceived as taking sides? I also find it interesting that they did make Underwood a Democrat: insofar as he does stand for anything besides Francis Underwood, it’s ruthless individualism and competition of the kind that these days seems more readily associated with Republicans. The choice could, I suppose, be seen as deliberately countering that stereotype, and perhaps also as a bit of push-back against the obvious “liberal bias” of The West Wing (which is impossible to imagine, at least for this non-expert non-American, as a show primarily about Republicans — though they did do a great job with Alan Alda as the very smart and sympathetic Republican candidate in the final season). By and large, though, I thought that the characters’ specific party affiliations were irrelevant in the US version: it was about power and greed more generically, and then about government as a domain in which these qualities rule unchecked — hence its overarching cynicism. In the UK version, in contrast, it’s bad government specifically that’s terrifying, though at the same time it is certainly entertaining.

So did I like the British version better? You might very well think so — but I couldn’t possibly comment. 🙂