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Monday, 3 August 2015

On Television (1) - House of Cards - Season Three

The US version of House of Cards started as a borrowed concept from the Brit TV series written by Andrew Davies and based on novels by Michael Dobbs. It was derived from Dobbs  background  as a major player in Conservative Party politics through the Thatcher era and beyond. A Conservative MP, the Chief Whip, Francis Urquhart stops at nothing to keep his party in office and in power. Ian Richardson got the dream part and his response to many matters during the series, as he betrayed his colleagues and even resorted to murder,: "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment"  has entered the political lexicon world wide.

And there it might have stayed but for Beau Willimon and Netflix who have resited and retooled it into a running commentary on American politics though where it would be without the lives of Bill and Hillary Clinton is something we will never have to contemplate. Beau, and 16 others who get credits as producers of some kind, are now up to series three. Francis Underwood has moved on from Leader of the Democratic Party in Congress, one step below the Speaker, all the way to President. On the way he has, as did Urquhart, stopped at nothing including murder though by series three Underwood at least has desisted from that particular trait though there is a murder.

The esteem in which the series is now held can be objectively verified by noting how many famous people, especially from the commentariat who daily cover the White House, are happy to go on and play themselves in cameo roles. But this bit of verisimilitude is not something that gets extended very far. The raucous offices through which the key backroom players prowl in The West Wing  are not re-assembled here. The extras are reduced to just a couple of staffers and the President's subaltern, Meechum, a Secret Service officer with a momentary intimate relationship with both the President and his wife. No, this series has, like its Brit predecessor, Shakespearean ambitions to show the corrupting effect of power whether it be naked power exercised brutally by the President or the kind exercised by players operating out of the limelight. The show is assisted this season by introducing the Russian President in a continuing role and doing so via an acute spoof of Vladimir Putin. He's played by the incomparably cheekboned Lars Mikkelsen. Here you have someone just as devious as Kevin's Spacey's Underwood

In this series, the President's major challenge is in controlling an ambitious wife seeking her own place in the power structures. The chosen vehicle is an appointment as Ambassador to the United Nations. At first the appointment fizzles when she's outsmarted by an ambitious Senator during her confirmation hearings. But, here you learn the minutiae of the American system, the appointment goes ahead via a slick bit of work that gets round that problem. The First Lady however puts her foot in her mouth far too frequently, frustration builds. Meanwhile the President, never elected, embarks on a re-election strategy so devious and complex that it's dizzying.  


As a primer on US politics, House of Cards offers much to chew and chortle over.  Its array of producers and consultants must have a huge amount of fun sitting round dreaming up the plots and drawing on so much that has gone before. Its true that the way politics works is something that replays endlessly well. Its also true that being regularly reminded of just how much politicians quickly start to serve themselves rather than the people is a very useful little information trope to carry round and assist in any judgement that might be made.

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