Tuesday 16 January 2018

So is Frank Underwood of 'House of Cards' one of the great TV villains?

'House of Cards' series 3 is coming to Netflix today. Gerard O'Donovan asks if its leading man has a place among TV's greatest baddies

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in ‘House of Cards’
Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in ‘House of Cards’
Moriarty from ‘Sherlock’
Tony Soprano
Nidge from 'Love/Hate'
Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in 'House of Cards'

What makes a great screen villain? There's never any lack of bad guys (and occasionally gals) in TV drama but what is it that makes the best, the most memorable villains scorch themselves onto our consciousness, embed themselves in our fears?

It's a thought prompted by the return of Frank Underwood in the third series of House of Cards (on Netflix from today). As embodied by Kevin Spacey, Underwood is one of the most sparklingly conceived villains of recent times. A ruthless political monster of staggering proportions.

A man for whom power is the prize, and who is willing to commit any crime - including murder - to get it.

One of the most fascinating elements of House of Cards, of course, is that Frank may not even be the most corrupt member of his own household. He is matched in terms of consciencelessness by his wife Claire. Played with perfect poise by Robin Wright, here is a character who blithely threatened the life of an unborn child over a lawsuit.

Underwood's combination of surface charm (that South Carolina drawl, that seductive wit) and subcutaneous menace are two of the attributes by which the best villains typically draw us in, fascinating us with complexity, a finely honed talent for manipulation and deception, or patterns of transgressive behaviour that we, mere morality-bound telly-watching mortals, know we would never be capable of ourselves.

Ruthlessness, brutality, treachery, deviancy, vaunting ambition and unutterable scariness are some of the qualities that can thrill us.

Especially when balanced out by elements of surprise and charisma. Often the monster comes masked in a cloak of ordinariness, especially when criminality is a career choice.

Take Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) of The Sopranos (1999-2007), a seemingly ordinary guy who just happens to be a Mafia don for whom business is misery, murder a mere transaction. But underneath there is something that fascinates. A capacity for tenderness, for emotional confusion. The power to make us think beyond the stereotype. To reflect on our own potential for evil.

Ireland's very own answer to the ruthless mafia don, Love/Hate's Nidge (in an award-winning turn from Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) brought a psychotic intensity to five seasons of the hugely popular Dublin-set drama. Viewers couldn't get enough of his gruesome charms and murderous deeds.

Looking back I recall my parents drawing shocked breath at Soames Forsyte's (Eric Porter) behaviour in The Forsyte Saga (1967). I couldn't see it. As children we respond more to the clear arch-badness of evil geniuses like the Dalek-maker Davros in Doctor Who, then graduate to the more complex malice of, say, Conan Doyle's Moriarty - so brilliantly portrayed by Andrew Scott in the recent Sherlock.

It takes a more mature perspective for someone like Ronald Merrick in 1984's The Jewel in the Crown to get under your skin - a man utterly reprehensible, yet in Tim Pigott-Smith's portrayal also a product of socio-economic circumstance, the bastard child of empire and the English middle class.

Of course villains can be funny, too. Who could say Julia Davis's terrifying, sociopathic Jill in the sitcom Nighty Night (2004-2005) is not a creature of nightmare; Rowan Atkinson's Edmund Blackadder not the perfect Machiavelli?

Ultimately, the best villains tend not to be one-note. Their monstrousness is covered by charm, their lies wrapped up in credibility. Their power lies in their ability to convince us not only that they could exist, but that they could get away with their misdeeds too. In the end Frank Underwood may not have the arachnid quality of Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) in the original BBC version of House of Cards (1990).

But having made it to the Oval Office, and about to take his seat as Leader of the Free World, he has certainly become a whole lot scarier.

Irish Independent

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