Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Two Houses of Cards

Netflix recently recreated the classic English series "House of Cards." Both of these are based on the sensational novel by Michael Dobbs. The English series spanned four episodes and featured the inscrutable Ian Richardson.  The American version stars a sardonic Kevin Spacey. All of these revolve around a whip in the lower body of legislature.  The man is devious, manipulative and he is at the heart of the political order - drama and intrigue are guaranteed.

Both shows feature an interesting element: the protagonist speaking directly to the audience. This is referred to as breaking the fourth wall.  It is an element that Shakespeare and lesser authors have used over the year. It takes great writing and a fantastic actor to pull off correctly. Contrast this technique to the monologue or the voice over. The latter two are informative, but not direct; by contrast, when the protagonist speaks directly to that audience, it has a deep effect. Poor authors attempt to use this tool to manipulate their audience.  Great authors use this to draw the audience into a conspiracy with the protagonist. Even when the audience is repulsed by protagonist's actions, they can't help but feel like participants.

I chose to watch the English version first, as it was produced first.  Ian Richardson is an incredible actor. You feel the force of his presence, even on a tiny laptop screen. Some of the plot elements felt contrived or ham fisted. Those defects are entirely forgivable when you consider the arc of the whole story and the fantastic show Richardson puts on. The American version is less sure of the central character's destiny and much of the plot is revealed as twists and turn. It makes for a more suspenseful viewing experience.

The American version is great in its own right. Kevin Spacey is different than Richardson, but no less enthralling. Spacey's character is, in many ways, a weaker character than Richardson's. Spacey is fallible; Richardson is not. I found Richardson much more enjoyable to watch, but Spacey's character so much more believable.

Also adding to American version is the strength of the supporting characters. The most noticeable difference is the strength of the protagonist's wife.  In the UK version, she has a single minded and totally unexplored devotion to her husband's career   By contrast, in the American version, the wife has the same vision, but struggles with the day-to-day choices required to see it through.  Those struggles are among the most human, most intense, moments in the series. As a mere mortal, I think, just do it - make the choices that will make you happy. But she doesn't. Instead she chooses to matter.

The reporter in the American version is a stronger character. Maybe that is just the societal shift. Now, the character pushes back against the protagonist and comes off as a serious reporter.

I thought both of the shows were really fantastic and can't wait to see more.