"Lilyhammer," Netflix's first foray into original programming, failed to generate sustained attention when it premiered last year. One suspects this won't be true of its star-studded second attempt, "House of Cards," debuting Friday. Except Netflix's latest isn't so novel after all: its animating force is the BBC's mostly excellent original.
With a devilish glance into the camera, Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (the perfectly sniveling Ian Richardson) conveys all you need to know about ambition's darkest recesses, and "House of Cards" obliges by taking a scalpel to the inanities and hypocrisies of post-Thatcher Britain. Premiering in 1990, the series made waves on the home front for its frank depiction of political malfeasance, and if the slightly dim fuzz of that age before HD and plasma seems dated, trust that the delicious machinations remain powerfully immediate. When it hits its stride, "House of Cards," directed by Paul Seed from a script by Andrew Davies, becomes a misanthropic portrait of "triangulation" at its empty best.
But before the stride come the stumbles: I was disappointed to see Netflix's David Fincher-directed remake, set in the present-day United States, pitch Kevin Spacey's drawling protagonist directly at the camera, replicating the original's most maddening tic. Bookending each episode, Urquhart breaks the fourth wall to sneer at the "pretenders," ill-bred and daft, or to plot his next move with the audience. Laying all the eponymous cards on the table so openly, the BBC version's verbose forthrightness seems uncouth, un-British even, losing the momentum of the series' central mystery. What will our antihero do to get what he wants?
This question is the germ of Richardson's smiling, smarmy genius, ably brushing off the press the day after the election or conspiring with his wife to humiliate his rivals. Urquhart, the loyal functionary denied what he sees as his rightful Cabinet post, decides to scorch the Earth and set himself up as the next Prime Minister, with the help of fast-climbing journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker). It's in their late-night plotting, midway through the first episode, that "House of Cards" mercifully forgets Urquhart's commentary and allows the sweet tension between them to build — a dicey collaboration that's two parts selfishness and one part trust. "Beware of an old man in a hurry," he tells her darkly.
Wrangling MPs busted with prostitutes and blackmailing insiders caught funneling government funds into their cocaine habits, watching Urquhart again reminded me that we inherited our taste for television antiheros from the Brits. Long before the firm of Draper, Dexter, Soprano, and White, we had Robbie Coltrane's dissolute-but-brilliant detective in "Cracker," Helen Mirren's foulmouthed, damaged investigator in "Prime Suspect," and snobbish, stone-cold Urquhart himself. (Kudos to former L.A. Times critic Howard Rosenberg for turning me on to these shows in the first place.)
The first and best of three Urquhart-centered series — the other two are "To Play the King" and "The Final Cut" — "House of Cards," when it does away with its worst aesthetic instincts, builds to an impressive portrait of politicians manipulating the press and the public, instead of the other way around. Though Netflix's remake would do well to rid itself of the original's stylistic baggage, this rather depressing view of the political process feels as right for our time as it did in 1990.
The increasingly weak PM may be, as Urquhart says, "the man of straw," but a straw man is a false target, merely the fall guy in someone else's setup. When politics come up short, "House of Cards" suggests, look for the culprit behind the curtain.
Netflix's "House of Cards" premieres Friday, February 1. The BBC's "House of Cards," "To Play the King," and "The Final Cut" are available free to Amazon Prime members and for $1.99 per episode to non-members.