Have now finished my winter’s homework assignment of speed-viewing the complete British version of House of Cards and both seasons of its American knockoff. Though the British set is consistently entertaining in spite of the snide, ritual breaches of the “fourth wall” by the entertainingly detestable “FU” (played by Ian Richardson), the Kevin Spacey take on FU barely makes it through the first season before his ham hands bring the whole thing down. Where Richardson’s light and ironic touch is able to sustain the credibility of the devilish attraction of a man whose character is so totally contemptible, the fiction is utterly broken, the suspension of disbelief completely shattered, by Spacey’s version of high-level chicanery and debauchery.
Part of the problem with the US version is the complete inability of the American artistic community (producers, writers, actors, etc.) to come up with even a halfway-realistic send-up of the American political right. To cite just one example, the Social Security “compromise” squeezed by FU out of the cartoon Republicans, a push-back of the standard retirement age from 65 to 68, is presented as though it were a huge concession to a fundamental Republican demand, whereas the only major SS-reform package ever introduced by a high-ranking Republican (President George W. Bush) was focused upon privatization and self-management of accounts and mentioned an age push-back only as one of a number of minor, and far less-important, possible topics of reform – certainly not something that was being pushed by Republicans or would buy major concessions for the Democrats on other topics, as it does for the American FU in the show. The distortion on Social Security serves double duty: it also provides a theatrical vehicle for advancing the fiction that the American right is a bunch of sour meanies who think nothing of screwing entire classes of needy people – in this case, old people. And this is hardly the sole example; every time the show tries to present a Republican position, it becomes a cartoon – though it is hard to tell whether this is intentional or based simply upon ignorance.
Another problem with the American/Spacey version is that the Spacey character is so uniformly vile, so completely unable to utter the truth to anyone at any time about anything. Spacey’s FU reminds one of writer Mary McCarthy’s observation about Lillian Hellman: “Every word she says is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ “ You wonder, wouldn’t a person sufficiently smart and experienced to have become the President of the U.S. (the Garrett Walker character) eventually figure out that FU never, ever, under any circumstances, says anything unless it is false or manipulative – ? The whole sense of theatrical verisimilitude is suspended, even lost, at some point. It is not as though American politicians are generally such truthful and high-minded characters, but the Hollywood version is so persistently dishonest, loathsome, and venal that you have to wonder whether the people who present the show are projecting their own sense of themselves onto the fictional characters they present on screen.
Speaking of projection, I cannot be the only viewer who had to battle the gag reflex while trying to endure the up-dated Hollywood version of the eternal triangle: a ménage a trois consisting of FU, Mrs. FU, and a Secret Service agent. Boy, they killed a lot of birds with that one stone, trashing a lot more than merely another respected American institution (I refer to the Secret Service, not the Presidency), though at least they had the decency to allow the actors to keep their clothes on for a change. And speaking of things one might have preferred not to see, how about Mr. Spacey’s attempts to throw a baseball – looking for all the world like the way girls supposedly used to throw a baseball, at least in the pre-Jenny Finch days. How could any American – of any gender – grow up that embarrassingly awkward and inept at any athletic maneuver? I had to cover my eyes, and I did not sense that this was Mr. Spacey pretending to be grotesquely un-coordinated.
All in all, the House of American Cards was of passing interest through Season One, but collapsed in an un-authentic, unbelievable, and uninteresting heap of mud in Season Two. Like “24,” which lost its mojo when leftist politics took over (and decreed that we could no longer have Islamist villains), HOC seems to have lost its way and become just another bacchanal of gratuitous sex, gratuitous violence, and gratuitous leftism. Could this show be the one that finally convinces the entertainment industry that it is harder to make money when only half the audience believes a word you are saying?