House of Cards, the crap version

Linking to Dan Hemmens’s takedown of the American version of House of Cards. I’m a big fan of the original series and was disappointed in the American version, for many of the reasons that Hemmens lists.

I have to add one observation–Hemmens notes that Uruqhart’s affability seduces the audience (as opposed to Underwood’s snarling big-boy act–Spacey makes evil seem so stressful), but he misses the difference between Uruqhart and Underwood’s victims, which is just as important. Many of Uruqhart’s victims are one-dimensional Tory scum–there’s the ultra-moronic one, the Jewish wet, the closety one, and the loud one that has to buy his own furniture. All of these men are at least as sleazy as Uruqhart, if not as clever, and it’s enjoyable to watch Uruqhart make ’em jump.

Underwood’s victims are teachers and dock workers, salt-of-the-earth stereotypes who are thrown into poverty through Underwood’s machinations. Even the congressman that he kills is a weak but nice guy who loves his momma and his children. Either the writers couldn’t get around to creating some hateful politicians for Underwood to bump off, or they genuinely think that Underwood’s screwing over of people with a hell of a lot less privilege than him makes him an admirable badass.* There’s an undercurrent that suggests that these people deserve to lose their livelihoods, because they’re just not as awesome as Underwood. Very different from watching various Tories get theirs. (A relative who enjoyed the Netflix series did so because he thought all Underwood’s deeds were leading up to his inevitable assassination, but presumably that will take another thirteen hours at least. Too long!)

Hemmens mentions that the Netflix series passes the Bechdel test. I give no points to House of Cards on this one. I have a problem with the Bechdel test, because while it does guarantee that men are not the center of a story’s world literally every single second, it doesn’t guarantee that women are portrayed as anything more than rock stupid, catty bitches. If the scenes that pass the Bechdel test are scenes where women catfight over pregnancy leave or spread incorrect information about abortion,** like they are in House of Cards, I’d rather the women just talk about how much they love men and cock and men.

* At some points, Spacey’s Underwood reminded me less of Uruqhart and more of The Thick of It‘s Malcolm Tucker, if The Thick of It was played absolutely not for laughs, ever, at all.

** Underwood’s wife, Claire, visits a fertility clinic near the end of the series. The female doctor there tells her that Claire’s past abortions will make it harder for her to have a child. Abortions, when performed safely, have a very low chance of affecting future fertility, so the medical information is not only incorrect, but it’s incorrect solely to punish Claire’s “bitchy” character for her past decisions (and it’s also silly, because Claire is going through menopause, which is obviously a larger fertility issue than any past abortions).



  1. I really wasn’t sure what to make about Underwood’s victims. Part of me felt it was a bit more interesting because it made him less sympathetic, which arguably could have added moral depth to the series but in the end it seemed to go very much the other way. The show honestly doesn’t seem to care about Underwood’s victims at all, and goes out of its way to minimise the impact his actions have on them (the shipyard probably would have closed anyway and the money saved jobs elsewhere, the teachers’ strike was presented as irrational, politically motivated, and standing in the way of much needed educational reforms, Russo seems borderline suicidal at the time he’s murdered – and Underwood murders him in a very passive way which Russo would have been able to get out of if he hadn’t already given up on life).

    As for the Bechdel test – basically I’m very aware that as a heterosexual white man it’s very easy for me to score points by calling other heterosexual white men sexists, and that strikes me as appropriative, so these days I try to give things as much benefit of the doubt as I can. But I agree that the treatment of women in the Netflix series is *atrocious* – it’s just that there was a narrow window in which I thought it might not have been, and I wanted to admit that.


    1. Yes, it does all seem to even out in the end, doesn’t it? Underwood is shown doing cruel things, and we’re supposed to hate him for being against “the little guy,” but we’re also shown that his “little guy” victims, like the protesters and the dockworkers, are easily misled and just not very bright. So “they” deserve what they get in the end–Underwood’s view of the world is proved correct again and again. This isn’t an issue in the original first series, where everything takes place on a strictly personal level. Thanks, Jacobean revenge tragedy structure, for helping us avoid stereotyping large groups of people!

      Another odd thing about Underwood’s victims is that Underwood’s supposed to be a Democrat, so he’s nominally supposed to love teachers and unions and so on. Now, in real life, Democrats aren’t like that, but in real life, there wouldn’t be a white Democratic elected official from South Carolina, either. (I don’t know what the British equivalent of South Carolina would be–Tatton? It’s very right-wing.) Underwood’s character would work better as a right-wing Republican–not just because of where he’s from, but the whole closeted relationship with Underwood and his school pal works better as part of one Republican stereotype (virulently anti-gay in public, cock monster in private). I don’t know why the show didn’t work with the stereotypes instead of going against them, but it does make Underwood come across as just a cold slimy bastard as opposed to a cold slimy bastard who you would expect to hate teachers and unions on ideological grounds. He’s just a jerk to be a jerk, and that level of narcissism ultimately becomes boring.


  2. Mind you, passing the Bechdel test doesn’t mean anything. The point of the test is that it’s so basic, so primary, and yet most of our popular culture doesn’t even manage to raise itself above such a ludicrously low bar.


    1. That’s very true. I think the problem I have here is that the women characters are talking about “women’s issues” as a way to tear each other down. Granted, this is a series in which all the characters are supposed to be SUPA PLAYAS who are out for their own interests all the time, but there’s something really jaded about watching women fight over maternity leave (which is very much not a right that most American women would have in “real life”).

      So it’s a technical pass, but such a spiritual fail.


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