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U.S. House of Cards lacks soul [Commentary]

LiteratureTelevision IndustryHouse of Cards (tv program)Netflix Inc.Breaking Bad (tv program)

In the original 1990's British version of "House of Cards," Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) is a conservative ideological extremist who rises through the political ranks by defeating one starry-eyed opponent after another. He is a cold-blooded murderer in the vein of Richard III, who can easily justify his actions because toughness is supposedly what the country needs.

The American version — the second season of which is set to launch on Netflix Friday — is considerably different. For one thing, in the David Fincher-directed series, the House majority whip Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) may nominally be a blue-dog Democrat from South Carolina, but he is as free of ideology as it's possible to be in Washington.

While Underwood easily fits into the antihero type familiar from long-form cable television series of the last decade, such as "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," he's not the same kind of Shakespearean character Urquhart was. Underwood is more spectacle than tragedy.

Assisted by his wife Claire (Robin Wright), who runs the global nonprofit Clean Water Initiative, Underwood embarks on a mission to displace newly elected Democratic president Garrett Walker by first gaining the vice presidency for himself. His motivation to set the dastardly chain of events in motion — including the murder of working-class Congressman Peter Russo of Pennsylvania — is ostensibly his anger at having been passed over for secretary of state.

None of these characters are ideological per se. Theoretically they are liberals, but it is only power for its own sake that drives them.

This is true also of characters like Zoe Barnes, a journalist who trades sexual favors for information from Underwood in a distinctly sadomasochistic relationship between unequals. She, too, is in a grab for power. Barnes — who works first at the Washington Post-like Herald (scenes for which were filmed at the Baltimore Sun) then jumps ship for the Politico-like Slugline — pursues news scoops without regard for ethics or others' interests. In the British version, Barnes' counterpart was Mattie Storin, an idealist who was every bit as likable as Barnes is repulsive, despite the authoritarian "daddy" context being even more distinct in the earlier iteration.

The American show's constant preoccupation with control of information, rather than the actual economic forces politicians leverage, misses the biggest part of the real-life national story and reduces what could be acute political commentary to mere entertainment.

In the British version, the substance of politics is supreme, not the power of (secret) personality. Everyone in the American "House of Cards" lives in a solipsistic universe, though, where the responsibilities of citizenship and adherence to a belief system aren't valued.

There is no ideological context, and only power rules, freeing the characters to satisfy only their own wants and needs through any means necessary.

Mr. Fincher's "House of Cards" could have taken on liberalism's current shortcomings — its internal deficiencies and ideological contradictions — in a thought-provoking (and still delightfully perverse) manner, just as the British version mounted a resounding critique of Margaret Thatcher-ite extremism. But instead, it relies on power and self-obsession to drive the narrative, erasing politics.

The British show comes off as infinitely superior; it awakens the viewer's consciousness and likely had an impact for the better in the years shortly before Tony Blair came to power, because it used the power of diabolical character to illustrate the extremism of right-wing ideology then being practiced.

Anis Shivani is a fiction writer, poet, and literary critic in Houston, Texas. His recent books include "My Tranquil War and Other Poems" (2012), "The Fifth Lash and Other Stories" (2012), and "Anatolia and Other Stories" (2009). His novel "Karachi Raj" is forthcoming in 2014.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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