On Friday, Netflix will release all 13 episodes of its new version of the 1990 BBC mini-series House of Cards. It’s a star-studded affair, directed (the first two episodes, anyway) by David Fincher, written by Beau Willimon (The Ides of March), and starring Kevin Spacey as calculating congressman Francis “Frank” Underwood. In a project that’s highly unusual—the anomalies include its simultaneous release, the bypassing of the TV networks, Fincher and Willimon’s lack of experience with long-form television, and Spacey’s 25-year absence from the small screen—one of the riskiest elements of the House of Cards rollout is that the British original is still available for instant viewing on Netflix. (You can also stream it on Amazon.)
This might not seem remarkable. When NBC launched Prime Suspect in fall 2011, for instance, anyone with a Netflix subscription could spoil their appetite for the new Maria Bello series by binging on the Helen Mirren classic. But given how much Netflix has spent on producing and promoting its own House of Cards, it’s brave of them to make it so easy to compare the Brits of 1990 with the Americans of 2013. Because the BBC version is absolutely superb.
True, the BBC series looks a little dated—the British version of “standard definition” always seems extra-grainy—and the cast has no stars who compare with the wattage of two-time-Oscar-winner Spacey. But the journeymen British actors really look like politicians from the old-white-guy era J.A.T. (Just After Thatcher), which lends verisimilitude. (Efforts to recruit more female and ethnic minority MPs—and the professionalization of politics—have since changed the face of the House of Commons.)
Ian Richardson, who portrayed Francis Urquhart, may not have possessed Kevin Spacey’s worldwide fame, but he should have. As the smarmy chief whip, he is the perfect blend of Macbeth, Mephistopheles, and Machiavelli. His catchphrase, “You might think that; I couldn’t possibly comment,” is the perfect non-denial denial. When he addresses the camera directly, it conveys the perfect suggestion of insanity—who is he talking to?—and his exploitation of smart young journalist Mattie Storin’s daddy issues make for one of the most shocking sexual relationships in television history without showing anything more graphic than a sweaty back.
The original series was based on a novel written by a former political insider, Michael Dobbs, chief of staff at Conservative Party headquarters before he took up his pen. So it’s no surprise that the British party politics ring true. And the storyline makes far more sense in Britain than in the United States: The plotting begins when Mrs. Thatcher is ousted and Henry Collingridge takes over the party leadership, and thus the prime ministership. Collingridge ascended to that position thanks to Francis Urquhart’s backroom manipulation—but when Urquhart meets with the PM to learn which of the great offices of state will be his reward, he discovers that Collingridge plans to keep him in the whip’s office, where his dark arts are needed more than ever. For the rest of the mini-series, Urquhart dedicates himself to destroying Collingridge and insinuating himself into his job.
You can perhaps see the problem that faced the creators of the U.S. version: In 1990, the Conservative Party put the power to elect its leader in the hands of MPs; indeed, the Tories dumped Mrs. Thatcher and installed John Major as party leader and prime minister in the same year that the series first aired. (Party members now have a bigger role in the pick.) The U.S. electoral system doesn’t work like that. The American House of Cards begins with Underwood’s discovery that the president-elect is reneging on his promise to nominate him to be secretary of state, because he needs Underwood to wield his considerable influence in Congress. The path to U.S. secretary of state is far less clear than the route to leader of the British Conservative Party.
Does that mean the American version is doomed to fall short? Maybe. But we won’t know for sure until House of Cards hits Netflix on Friday.