Saturday, August 9, 2014

Shakespeare on the Potomac

This week I continued to make good progress on my novel -- now up to 40,000 words -- and perhaps as a result I’m not so interested in writing about writing. In my last post I went on and on about summer movies, and now I’m going to talk about my new favorite TV series, House of Cards. My son and I were looking for a fun show to watch during the long, dreary interregnum before The Walking Dead resumes in October, and I’d heard good things about Cards.

If, like me, you’re a latecomer to the series, here’s the gist: Frank Underwood, a Machiavellian congressman from South Carolina, executes a sequence of increasingly dirty tricks to gain power and outmaneuver opponents in Washington, D.C. Underwood is played by Kevin Spacey, and he’s the main reason for watching the show. My favorite part is when he turns to the camera and directly addresses the audience. I know this technique is as old as Shakespeare, but it still works. Frank adopts a completely different tone for these soliloquys, a voice that’s knowing and evil but also bracingly honest. “I despise children,” he admits. “There, I’ve said it.” He also badmouths the president, the vice president and just about everyone else in D.C. As he outlines his schemes for the TV viewers, you can’t help but think of Richard III plotting his assassinations and seductions. (“Was ever woman in this humor wooed? Was ever woman in this humor won?”) The resemblance is so strong that it must be deliberate. The creators of the show clearly wanted to stage an updated version of a Shakespearean history play, with all its naked brutality.

There are also strong hints of Macbeth. Frank’s wife Claire, played by Robin Wright, is supposed to be equally cunning and amoral, but like Lady Macbeth, she has a little trouble living with herself. By the end of Season 1 (my son and I haven’t progressed to Season 2 yet) she seems to be yearning for something more meaningful. Unfortunately, this makes me like her less rather than more. I can’t really see inside her head. She doesn’t indulge in soliloquys, so I don’t know what she’s thinking.

Many of the secondary characters are also weak. Frank’s mistress, an ambitious reporter, is too young and witless. Claire’s paramour is a complete caricature, an English photographer who sounds like a cut-rate Jude Law. Worse, a few of the plot points made no sense at all. During one of the episodes Frank’s machinations trigger a nationwide teacher’s strike, which is utterly ridiculous; teachers are organized on the local level. And at one point Frank delegates a fellow congressman to carry out an unsavory task that could’ve been much more easily accomplished by a private investigator or by Doug Stamper, Frank’s wily second-in-command, who is also my second-favorite character in the series. It was poor plotting, a shame.

But Kevin Spacey’s performance makes up for all the flaws. In fact, it’s almost as good as Bryan Cranston’s performance in Breaking Bad. The two shows have a common theme, the realistic and intimate portrayal of evil, and viewers of both series will find themselves rooting for the bad guy. All in all, though, I think Breaking Bad is the better series, mostly because it leavened the dark proceedings with humor. Cranston was very funny at times, and so was Aaron Paul (his confession about “the problem dog” was one of the funniest and saddest speeches ever written for television).

House of Cards is also somewhat educational. My son is fifteen now, and he needs to learn how our government works. I tell him not to worry if he doesn’t completely understand the plot (which, as I just pointed out, doesn’t always make sense anyway). The important lesson here is that politicians will stop at nothing.


  1. My wife and I love HOC. Can't wait for the new season. Another highly recommended and equally addictive series is ORPHAN BLACK. Amazing premise. Check it out.

  2. Mark, I'm reading a good YA book that is entertaining and educational about the government. "Divided We Fall" by Trent Reedy is a near future book that depicts what might happen if a state government (Idaho) disagrees with the federal government to the point of force. Reedy deftly weaves in a lot about the Constitution. Be warned that most of the main characters are high schoolers who occasionally drink and have sex (though not explicitly). The behaviors come across as realistic, but it's going to keep the book out of a lot of schools. That's too bad, because otherwise the book is a great way to illustrate a discussion about the Constitution and states rights.

  3. ". . . and viewers of both series will find themselves rooting for the bad guy. "

    Mark, I think you summed up why, while I admire the two series, I don't watch them.

    I don't root for bad guys. Had the same problem with 'Dexter'.

    Great post and break out of the elements. Learned a couple of things, which is always handy

  4. Sounds interesting, will probably confirm my worst fears about amoral politicians and the corporate lobbyists that fund them.

  5. Very interesting review. I've watched all of season 1 but I became less interested in season 2. There our bad guys become REALLY bad. I had trouble pulling for Frances.

    Unlike Breaking Bad where I pulled for Walter White the entire episode, Underwood is less likable. Why? He is not dying of cancer. He really has no excuse for his evil. It seems to me if we are writing about dark characters, we must give them some "like ability." That's my two-cents.

    I'd love to hear what you think once you start season 2. Friends tell me, btw, not to give up on the series.

  6. Love HOC, and am dying for the next season. Spacey is brilliant. I agree that the wife is like a blank wall.

    Interesting that the writers break the fourth wall,but it works. Hadn't made the connection to Shakespeare...I was thinking more a Greek tragedy.

    I loved the opening, where you think, "Aha! The writers are going to have Spacey 'save the cat.'

    Yes, Kathryn, it will confirm your worst fears, which makes it realistic for me, despite the plot holes. I ignore them willingly.

    Liked ORPHAN BLACK, LIFE ON MARS (not at all what you'd think...a British cop series with an unusual premise), not so crazy about ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK.

    Love Netflix, although I used to be able to say that I didn't watch much TV.

  7. Watch the UK series. The US follows closely enough. Keep your eyes on Claire....she is so much...more.