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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Tuesday (4/23/13) 3:35am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Missed several weeks, on account of laziness.]

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Stephen Fry in America, House of Cards (2013) [1x01-1x06]
Books:  <none>

Stephen Fry in America
This is the British travel program that follows Stephen Fry on a trip through all fifty of the United States.  It's my first experience with the classic British travel program, wherein we follow some affable British humorist on some high-concept journey that takes him (always a him, isn't it?) to far-flung places.  I'm well aware that Michael Palin went from Pole to Pole and Around the World in 80 Days, and I've read the book version of Last Chance to See, which dispatched Douglas Adams around the world to investigate vanishing endangered species.  So I knew the tradition existed, at least.

And with Stephen Fry in America, I found the classic British travel show to be pretty much exactly what I thought it would be.  It was affable, pleasant, fairly innocuous, and it neither demanded nor rewarded close attention.

There were some things to recommend it.  Fry's love of language makes it a delight to hear him talk about just about anything, so his voiceover descriptions were often just fun in and of themselves.

And it was interesting to see how, while an American going on a trip through the fifty states would probably try to gather up the weirdest, most extreme sights and experiences -- the notable exceptions to their concept of "normal America" -- Fry is going to all these places looking for what they have in common.  He keeps trying to tie his latest strange travel experience into his ever-evolving concept of what America is.

But all this makes the show sound more intellectual than it really is.  It's mostly: Stephen Fry goes someplace all American-y, like a West Virginia coal mine; Stephen Fry is affable and British there; the locals are pleasant to him.  It's all nice enough, but it's neither riveting nor essential.

House of Cards (2013) [1x01-1x06]
This is the netflix remake of the 1990 British political thriller.

I hate to be the hipster who says "the original is better than the remake," but: the original is better than the remake.  I was a giant fan of the original British series; in high school and college, I meticulously recorded all three seasons off of Kentucky public television on to VHS tapes.  So when netflix announced a remake, directed by David Fincher, and starring Kevin Spacey, I was beyond excited.

But as early as its opening credit sequence, you know something's wrong.  The British series has a lovely, pomp-filled march[1]  It tells you that there's something big, something grandiose, about this show.  It hints that you're going to want to use the word "Shakesperean".  And when you meet Francis Urquhart, the protagonist of the BBC series, you know he's evil.  And not evil in a modern, gray, "banality of evil" sort of way.  More like the "tying the girl to the train tracks and twirling his moustache" way.

And what's more: he enjoys it.  Francis Urquhart *likes* being Francis Urquhart.  The first scene of the first episode has one little smirk that hints at what one commenter calls his "impish malevolence".  So you get the idea of what this show is like: it's like Richard III.  A very bad man will do very bad things, and somehow, it's just so much *fun* that you find yourself on his side.  And all of that is a big setup for when this guy does things that are so immoral (not amoral, immoral), so cruel, so *wrong*, that you wonder how you wound up in his corner all this time.

Compare this to the opening theme of the remake.  I have just watched this show an hour ago.  I can't remember a note of the theme.  It just sits there, rumbling and ambient and "cool" and vaguely menacing.  Nothing big is going to happen here.  No grand emotions.  Nothing but business as usual in Washington, where people are bad to each other.

And so it is with the show.  Kevin Spacey is a rightly-acknowledged master at portraying dead-eyed sociopathy, and that's what he brings to the table here.  Frank Underwood doesn't like being Frank Underwood.  As far as I can tell, Frank Underwood doesn't really "like" things the way you or I do.  Underwood just sees obstacles and tries to remove them from his path, without delight or warmth.  He's kind of like a shark.

And he seems to be a shark that lives in a world of other sharks.  Part of the joy of the original series was in seeing Urquhart deceive fairly decent, upstanding, and tragically-unsuspicious political operatives.  In the remake, countless characters all tell Underwood point-blank, "Look, I know you don't care about this," or "Look, I know you're only out for yourself."  So the joy of pulling the wool over people's eyes is gone, as is the pleasure of seeing a world that at least has *some* good people in it.

After a while, we're just watching tactics -- how will Underwood out-maneuver this other guy?

And he will do so.  The annoying thing is, his tactics always succeed.  Another pleasure of the original series was that you watched things constantly hit the fan for Urquhart.  He had to scramble, he had to think fast, and he had to do more and more evil things because all his plans were always on the edge of falling to pieces.  There was tension there, especially since you secretly delighted with him in seeing his evil machinations come to fruition.  In the remake, Underwood wins everything all the time.  His adversaries get, at best, ten minutes of apparent success (this would be when Underwood flubs the CNN debate with Spinelli) and then, boom, Underwood quickly turns things around so that he's in charge again.

How peaceful.  How boring.

Okay.  So the plot's dull, the antihero is not particularly charismatic, and his quest is unengaging.  All of this would be fine (or at least be acceptable) if the show built up a strong bench of characters, or if it did some interesting world-building.  But honestly, I think this show was put together by filmmakers who don't quite understand how to television.

A film usually runs about ninety minutes.  In a conventional commercial film, this is just about enough time to run a protagonist through some sort of transforming experience.  Secondary characters are often designed to serve this main plot.  If your hero's quest is to win the hot-dog-eating contest at the state fair, you might have a trainer who trains him in hot-dog eating, you might have a villain who's his main competitor, you might have a love interest whom he's trying to win the hot-dog-eating contest for.  God, this is a horrible, horrible, made-up example... but it illustrates the point: in films, secondary characters often strike one note -- the note that will let that character serve the overall plot most effectively.

In television, especially television drama, that strategy much less effective.  Secondary characters often *start* as one-note characters, but then, as time goes on, you let them develop nuances, surprises, or apparent contradictions.  You let them grow.  You let them serve other functions in other stories.

Now, don't get me wrong, I have nothing against one-note characters in one-off stories.  Osric is a great fop in Hamlet, right?  But I guarantee you, if Elsinore had run for two seasons, Osric would have been more than just a fop.  We would have learned more about him, because that's just how television drama works these days.

Or, that's how television drama works these days, if that drama is not House of Cards.  The characters in House of Cards work like movie characters: simple, clear, and designed to serve the plot.  After an episode or two of this, you feel kind of annoyed.  After six episodes of this, you feel baffled.  It's just weird.  It's like sitting down to hear a symphony... and then watching the orchestra tune up for an hour.  "Okay.  Um.  When are these characters going to *do* something?"

Analogous to the weak characters, they don't have a sense of world-building.  A lot of great TV shows in *every* genre -- The Simpsons and Parks and Recreation and Justified and Firefly -- do an amazing job of building out a universe for their characters to move through.  They even show a certain impatience about it: every episode is a chance to show us a new location or introduce a new recurring character.  Or, if the show isn't exploring something clear and visible like that, it still has that restless, fidgety need to explore new conceptual territory.  If last week we learned about what it's like putting Natalie in charge of the newsroom, this week we'll change gears and explore Dana's anxiety over her doomed engagement.

With every episode, you seek out the empty spot on the canvas, and you start painting there.

House of Cards just isn't doing that.  Everyone jokes about certain shows having seasons that are "like a thirteen-hour movie, cut into chunks," but that's really an overstatement.  Those are heavily, heavily serialized television shows, but they're still television shows.  Season 7 of Buffy told one continuous story from start to finish, but individual episodes still had that feeling of exploring different parts of the story's world, and collectively adding up to a picture that was larger than the sum of its parts.  Each episode included reversals and surprises and resolutions.

It looks like the House of Cards remake is, much more literally, a movie carved into episode-sized chunks.  Instead of going ten minutes 'til the inciting incident, we go for a good chunk of the pilot 'til the inciting incident.  Instead of going thirty minutes 'til the first big reversal, we go five episodes 'til the first big reversal.  Things are constantly *happening*, but in terms of the story arc, it goes so slow it's practically encased in amber.  There are no episodic stories, constantly exploring -- just the one, lumbering story arc, slowly inching forward.

There are other, smaller things to complain about.

I don't feel like anyone behind this show really *likes* politics.  I doubt that director David Fincher spends his evenings getting in comment-thread arguments about policy-framing decisions on the fivethirtyeight blog.  I don't think anybody's forcibly curbing the writers from having their characters discourse about legislative procedure and phrasing for mintues on end.  Basically, whenever politicians talk about politics on this show, the speeches feel like speeches *I* would write, if those speeches were informed by my desire to do the bare minimum of research required to make the speech work.  It all has that, "Oh, I'll make the character reference a list of things I saw on wikipedia" smell to it.

It gives the show this vague feeling, like none of those speeches had any real content, and nobody was talking about anything that mattered.  At first, I thought this was because the show wanted to shy away from taking political sides.  But then I realized, no, they identified Underwood as a Democrat.  And for that matter, Armando Ianucci identified no political parties in In the Loop, and that dialog still felt sharp and specific.  No, I think it's just that when you write about a topic you don't really love, it can easily become just exposition.  You're just writing about stuff, and spouting relevant lists of facts, instead of saying something that *means* something to you.

Beyond that, there's just a pervasive blandness.  You see a scene start, and you kind of imagine the normal way for that scene to go... and then House of Cards traipses right down that path. 

And the less said about Underwood's southern accent, the better.  I'll only say that once I accepted that it would randomly appear, disappear, and vary in intensity, I was able to deal with it much better.

It's a shame I find so much to complain about here, because there are obviously staggering amounts of money and talent pouring into this project.  It out-professionals and out-competents and out-glosses nearly everything on television.  It's far snazzier than the other well-known show that explores politics, the media, and the decay of American institutions: The Wire.  But when you make that comparison -- and that comparison is an elephant in the room through the whole series -- you realize just how little any of that matters.

For next time:  I should probably start watching some Much Ado adaptations for the upcoming production of Fakespeare.

[1] The priceless top comment on that video (as of this writing):
'Comment on this video'

I couldn't possibly

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