Wednesday 21 March 2018

TV guide: Cards on the table

As series four of House of Cards begins on Netflix, we examine the parallels with actual American politics. And yes, there are spoilers...

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright who star in House of Cards.
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright who star in House of Cards.

Emily Hourican

Just because we've got the real thing, in the shape of an exciting (perhaps a little too exciting . . .) starter of a US election race, does not for a second mean that the many fans of hit series House Of Cards are not settling in happily for more of the same on-screen.

Kevin Spacey, aka power-hungry screen president Francis Underwood, recently said it's "silly" to compare real-life political manoeuvrings to the fictionalised version: "It's sort of silly to compare the two because they're both a little bit unpredictable and audiences have no idea where we're going to go and what we're going to do. And that's, I think, part of the enjoyment that an audience has, they don't really know."

However, there is no point forgetting or ignoring that much of the appeal of this show has always been the very fact that it seems so convincingly to reflect the inner workings of the American political machine.

In fact, along with The West Wing, it functions as a kind of more interesting, better-scripted portrayal of real-life US politics, living somewhere between truth and fiction.

And indeed, the new series is set in an election year, with Underwood seeking to hold on to power. At the end of the last series, his resolutely strong relationship with his equally ruthless wife Claire, played by Robin Wright, had begun to show signs of pressure. The kind of pressure that is inevitable when two people have the same end goal in sight - in this case, the White House.

Just as Underwood was celebrating his win in Iowa, Claire had begun to make her own bid for power, a bid that seemed to involve leaving Underwood.

Of course by that stage his ruthlessness and ambition had pretty much corroded everything around them. In series three alone, he urinated on his father's grave, spat on a crucifix and slashed welfare rights across the country as part of his hard-line 'America Works' campaign. He also ramped up the long-standing animosity between himself and Russian President Petrov (a thinly disguised Putin-type figure), and even found time to make new enemies.

The trailer for series four shows, as well as a number of significant dirty looks between Underwood and Claire, his insistence that "You have no idea what it means to have nothing... I have to fight for everything, my entire life," and later, bitterly, "we had a future, until you started destroying it." Then there's a shoulder bag full of cash, a tap dripping what looks like blood, a case of what seems to be a murder, another of what seems to be suicide, significant shots of an electoral register and a seduction scene involving a woman not his wife.

Through it all, Spacey (above, with Robin Wright) maintains the same intense, watchful, menacing expression, unless the cameras or public are watching, in which case he switches instantly into the kind of manly charm mode that any of our politicians would rightly envy. Around him are the stalwarts of his inner circle, the various aides, spin doctors and allies who keep at bay the equally large number of circling enemies.

House Of Cards originally began as an adaptation of a BBC mini-series based on the novel by Michael Dobbs, and has since gone on to win a rake of awards and be pointed up as an example of what can be done by TV drama.

However, critics weren't entirely happy with the last series, complaining that it had lost its mojo, that the scripting was baggy and plotlines jaded. Given that the show has already been renewed for a fifth series, it is clearly time now for producers to come out fighting - and produce something to impress critics and make fans happy.

House of Cards, series four, is on Netflix on March 4

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