I’ve always thought the best dramas usually have the nastiest of villains. Think “one-armed man” in the original TV series — or the movie version — of “The Fugitive.” Or the sicko killer named Scorpio in “Dirty Harry,” played with such sadistic brilliance by Andy Robinson that I still can’t get him out of my head 42 years after I first saw that movie.
Sometimes the nasty villain is the protagonist of the piece if not quite the hero. Think “Scarface” or “The Sopranos.”
One of the most popular TV figures ever was the cunning, scheming, Machiavellian J.R. Ewing of “Dallas” fame.
And now, thank the Lord, we have Kevin Spacey’s Francis “Frank” Underwood joining that elite group of sly, shrewd, serpentine operators who inhabit a consciousness that’s shady at best and maliciously sinful at worst. These characters can make watching a TV show an absolute joy.
Frank is, well, seemingly frank when talking to his political colleagues, and genuinely frank whenever he’s breaking down the fourth wall and addressing the audience, a la the title character in Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” The word underwood refers to the undergrowth — the shrubs and such that make up the underbelly beneath the taller trees in a forest. It is there one finds most of the poisonous fungi and spores and disgusting spiders and insects.
Frank Underwood is the main character of “House of Cards,” the drama series that Netflix put up on its steaming service on Feb. 1, 2013. What makes this series unique is not just that it was made for Netflix, but that Netflix put up, at one time, all 13 episodes made for season one of the series. Eventually, Netflix will do the same for the upcoming season two of “House of Cards.”
This U.S. version of “House of Cards” is based on a beloved British series of the same name that originally aired in the U.K. in 1990. That miniseries, in turn, was based on the novel “House of Cards” by Michael Dobbs. Dobbs was chief of staff of the Conservative Party in Britain when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister in the 1980s. The main character of Dobbs’ novel (and the U.K. miniseries) is Francis Urquhart, the chief whip of the Conservative Party in Parliament. I have neither read the book nor seen the acclaimed U.K miniseries.
The U.S. version of the series translates all of the action to the shores of America, with the show’s center being inside the Beltway. Underwood is the whip in the House of Representatives for the just-elected Democratic majority. A number of media reports have said that among the original influences on Dobbs when writing his “House of Cards” novel were some of Shakespeare’s darkest dramas, such as “Richard III” and “Macbeth.”
This past weekend I binge-watched all 13 episodes of “House of Cards.” The show reminded me of a roller coaster: The first 8 episodes were the coaster making that anticipatory climb up that initial tall hill, and the last 5 were the thrill-a-second drops and twists and turns and loops.
Even better news if you haven’t watched “House of Cards” yet: You can skip episodes 3 and 8, and still understand all the shenanigans that happen during the last five episodes. Then, like watching bonus material on a DVD, after you finish watching episode 13, you can go back to episodes 3 and 8 if you wish, as they are basically character pieces fleshing out some of what Underwood is all about.
The reference to Underwood as Shakespearean-like seems to fit. The great actor Ian McKellen, who made a movie version of “Richard III,” has written, “It is an odd, critical commonplace that, despite so many performances to the contrary, Richard III is still accepted as an embodiment of pure evil. … I was prepared to explore Richard’s humanity rather than reduce him to an emblem of wickedness.
“All of Shakespeare’s troubled heroes reveal their inner selves in their confidential soliloquies. These are not thoughts-out-loud, rather true confessions to the audience. Richard may lie to all the other characters but within his solo speeches he always tells the truth. I never doubted that in the film he would have to break through the fourth wall of the screen and talk directly to the camera, as to a confidant. If this unsettled the audience, so much the better. They should not be comfortable hearing his vile secrets and being treated as accomplices. They would also better appreciate the brilliance of his ability to fool, deceive and seduce his hapless victims. Men and women are all players to Shakespeare but Richard is a consummate actor.”
And thus it is so with Underwood’s asides to the audience. Interestingly, Spacey played Underwood almost immediately after he finished a 10-month tour playing Richard III all over the world.
Here’s Spacey addressing this point a few weeks ago on NPR’s “Weekend Saturday” with host Scott Simon. Spacey said, “Well, I actually am kind of enormously grateful that a year ago, I had the chance to do Richard III — which this character was largely based on, from Michael Dobbs’ original novel, and hence, why the direct address is employed. That was not Michael Dobbs’ idea. … That happened to be William Shakespeare’s idea.
“And so I had the experience of playing a character who does break the fourth wall. I don’t think Richard has as much finesse as we’re trying to give to Francis. He’s just sort of slashing and burning, and the bodies are mounting up, in the course of that play. And while that experience was much more theatrical, and the requirements of doing the series are much subtler, I think it translated incredibly well. And I think it does have kind of those — sort of epic Shakespearean storylines and archetypes, and relationships between characters that are very complicated and difficult. But for me, it’s been a little bit like, this first season — we’ve shot 13 — it’s been a little bit like playing 13 hours of a championship chess match.”
Simon then asked Spacey whether he has to like the character of Underwood to play him.
Spacey replied, “No. I’ve played many characters that I didn’t necessarily care for. But I’m also quite careful about judging the characters that I play. I think that’s a huge mistake…if you end up judging a character you’re playing ….
"People who like to only color with black and white, it gets really boring after a while. ‘Cause life is not like that. Life is complex, and the gray areas are far more interesting than the black and white areas. So I never think of characters as villains … villainy is not something you can play. It’s not an active acting thing that you can do. It is a judgment about a character. And I can’t judge the characters I play. I can only play them, and let the chips fall where they may.”
And Spacey plays Underwood to the hilt. Underwood is from South Carolina (though Spacey seems to lose his Southern accent on occasion — Spacey grew up in California), and Spacey plays him as genteel as possible, though certainly not gentle. One of the pleasures of watching Underwood is seeing other characters getting skewered by his pretentious politeness.
In the interview with Simon, “House of Cards” showrunner Beau Willamon, who wrote or co-wrote all of this season’s episodes, also spoke of the connection between Underwood and Richard III: “If you look at all the things that Richard III does in black and white, is anyone really capable of liking him? But you find yourself glued to him. You find elements in him that you like because it allows you to access parts of yourself th
at you don’t exhibit in your everyday behavior. There’s a part of all of us that wishes we could, at times, be Richard III, or at times be Francis Underwood. And I think audiences have grown accustomed to that in a very sophisticated way, with characters like Tony Soprano or [“Breaking Bad’s”] Walter White. Why do we keep going back to these characters? Because they give us access to something. And it’s that attraction, which is far more powerful than the black and white of likability, as it were.”
A tip of the hat to Willamon, for the Herculean job he’s done on "House of Cards." A playwright best known for writing the political thriller “Farragut North” — which was later made into the George Clooney vehicle “The Ides of March” — Willamon has said that one of the best things he was able to do with “House of Cards” was write all 13 episodes before shooting began. That prevented him from writing himself into a corner as used to happen sometimes with the show “24,” as those scripts were being completed just a few weeks before being shot. Unfortunately, Willamon said he won’t be able to write all 13 episodes of season two before shooting of those episodes begins.
Two more things: the acting and directing of the series. Two acting standouts, besides Spacey, are Robin Wright, in one of her best roles, as Underwood’s enigmatic wife, Claire, and Kate Mara, who plays the reporter Zoe Barnes in the series. Another standout in the large and mostly superb cast is Michael Kelly, as Underwood’s loyal "left"-hand man, Doug Stamper. He does indeed rubber stamp any nefarious plans Underwood makes.
Finally a word about the direction of the show. David Fincher directed the first two episodes and is listed as one of the show’s executive producers (along with Spacey, Willamon and many others). The critic David Thomson once said about the director that it is to “Fincher’s credit that his films take place somewhere beyond our edge — yet in a recognizable extension of our nightmares.” He also notes that Fincher has an interest in film noir.
Fincher sets the tone in the very first scene of the series. No spoiler here, but it’s clear from that first scene that Fincher sees the noir potential in “House of Cards.”
Showrunner Willamon, in another interview, with News Corp.’s IGN Entertainment, said, “In terms of directors, David, of course, established a visual tone, a style. The actors do the heavy lifting of creating their roles in those first two episodes. I think they provided the following directors a frame in which to work. We had amazing directors. We had James Foley, Joel Schumacher, Charles McDougall, Carl Franklin, Allen Coulter …”
Then Willamon added this about Fincher: “David was mostly based out of L.A., which is where the editing base was, out of his office. So all of our editors were working out of David’s offices in L.A., and the supreme advantage of that was David was personally overseeing the post process. Of course the directors were working on their own edits with the editors, but David was there to collaborate with them and play a part in that process and to make sure that the visual voice of the show remained consistent. He was involved heavily on every episode. He read every script, always had insightful thoughts and notes.
“Sometimes we would be on the phone with Kevin and do a four-hour jam session talking about two scripts down the line. [David] was looking at dailies every day and in direct communication with the directors. Whenever they had questions, he would direct them, I was there to talk with them about story and character development on my side of things, so it was a team effort and incredible collaboration, and his attention to the micro and macro simultaneously was unlike anything I have ever seen. I can’t imagine any other director in the history of television being quite as committed as David Fincher. Maybe they are out there, and maybe my knowledge of TV history just isn’t good enough, but he has an incredible work ethic, a savant-like knowledge of his craft and a vision and dedication that’s truly inspiring.”
My suggestion: With the Presidents’ Day holiday coming up on Monday, what more appropriate time to binge-watch “House of Cards” on Netflix. As Shakespeare once wrote, “Something wicked this way comes.”
To which I paraphrase Henry Higgins — and I think you will too, once you start watching this series: “How simply frightful. And how delightful!”