Why can't Americans do political intrigue like the Brits?
In Britain's 1990 House of Cards, the Machiavellian minister, Francis Urquhart, is referred to as ‘FU' by those around him. In the American adaptation, released this month in a 13-part series available only on Netflix, the congressman's name is Francis Underwood. Same initials, but you never hear them. The inside joke has gone.
Much more had changed in the Netflix version. The U.S. production wasn't just longer. Like much of American political drama, it was bigger and glosser than its British counterpart. The stakes were higher, the story lines more implausible, the characters at times unrecognizable. (Has anyone ever seen a congressional wife as glamorous as Mrs. Underwood? Or, for that matter, an NGO office Anna Wintour would be comfortable holding meetings in?)
Spacey's performance as Underwood lacked the rapier-like realism of Ian Richardson's Urquhart. It wasn't just Spacey's hit-or-miss Southern drawl that was unrealistic, it was his politics too. Would any politician really care about pushing an expensive education bill through the House? A more likely issue would have been defense -- or gambling.
House of Cards isn't the first British production to be heavily made over for American audiences. Fans of the BBC series State of Play, which begins with a House of Commons researcher being pushed to her death on the London Underground, might wonder at the hyperbolic script in the Russell Crowe/Ben Affleck movie adaption. ("Billions of dollars. That's wrath of God money.")
But plausible and watchable don't always mean the same thing. Even fans of original U.S. programming like Scandal, 24, or Political Animals realize we are not watching anything close to an accurate representation of political intrigue. And as for the West Wing, yes there was oodles of intrigue but very little of it political.
So why is American so bad at this game? The difference begins at the source. Compare London's Prime Minister's Question Time to any debate on Washington's Senate or House floors and you'll immediately understand the difference in style. Britain produces politicians who are at ease making inside jokes and classical references (just look at these recent horsemeat scandal jokes by MPs). Their language is articulate, produced by an education that prizes debate. In London, speeches are more likely to be made than read and sarcasm is a plus. Politicians see themselves as entertainers. (Exhibit A: London Mayor Boris Johnson.) The entertainment takes place in Westminster. Screenwriters just have to adapt what they hear.
There is also a difference in substance based on reality. Take a look back at the headlines and you'll see that betrayal at the highest level took place in the Cold War with Kim Philby, Guy Burges, Donald Maclean, and Anthony Blunt (the Queen's curator) all recruited by the Soviets while at Cambridge.
In the 1960s and 70s, ministers John Profumo and Anthony Lambton had to resign their seats after encounters with prostitutes. More recently, the phone-hacking scandals have exposed a cozy world of networking between politics and media that includes Prime Minister David Cameron, Rupert Murdoch's chief aide Rebekah Brooks, and PR guru and Murdoch son-in-law Matthew Freud (yes, the grandson of Sigmund). Even House of Cards -- the British version -- was based on a three-volume novel written by Michael Dobbs, an advisor to Margaret Thatcher before becoming chairman of the Conservative Party.
Real and fictional intrigue in the United Kingdom tends to be about power based on a class system where relationships are made at boarding school or at Oxford and Cambridge. In England, who you know can be far more useful than how much money you have.
When, for instance, did Rebekah Brooks become a true insider? When Rupert Murdoch promoted her or when she married an old Etonian with an estate close to the Cameron's? Corridors of power don't just run through Westminster but in large country houses that have belonged to the same families for generations.
The Yanks, once again, are different. In the absence of an impenetrable establishment, fictional intrigue in the United States almost invariably revolves around money. Money can buy anything, including the presidency (Scandal). The political landscape changes frequently, but money is always there. The money trail starts in Hollywood, which explains the presence of car chases, multiple shootings, and often the involvement of the entire military in political dramas.
Sometimes there are exceptions to the brashness. See Damages, season 4, which revolved around a private contractor's (John Goodman) role in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. The story line was inspired by recent headlines, and Goodman's portrayal of a patriotic, American military capitalist was extraordinary. The script was tight and lacked hysteria. This has been the one to beat. Unsurprisingly the show wasn't a hit. Maybe it was too subtle for a national palate dulled by Technicolor and Surround Sound.
The Hollywood myth of Washington is that it's a glamorous place. But real life is never glamorous. The Washington of C-Span -- the authentic Washington -- does not sell a lot of popcorn. So filmmakers create a fairy-tale capital, on the premise that there's a life here you suspect but don't see. It's a city of secrets and lies, where elections are bought or rigged and betrayal is an everyday activity. There is no democracy here. There's not much reality either.
Francis Underwood might have been enraged not to have been made secretary of state but in real life he'd have been given something else -- some pork to take home to his district or a lesser cabinet-level post -- and moved on.
In real life, would Underwood have had a driver? Recent headlines from London have proved that the better story would have existed if he didn't. Ten years ago, minister Chris Huhne persuaded (coerced?) his wife to perjure herself and take his points on a speeding ticket for going 69 mph in a 50 mph speed zone. The case is currently gripping Britain. Because of one traffic violation, Huhne's political career is over and he and his now ex-wife face prison time.
Over in Denmark, the traffic stakes are even smaller. In Borgen, fictional Danish Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg bikes to work, leaving behind a messy house, two kids (one a troubled teen), and a dissatisfied husband. At the office she deals with the same problems her fictional counterparts in London and Washington are facing: an unwanted war, a difficult media, rich and powerful corporate bosses, a tanking economy, and disloyalty in the ranks. There are no frills in this production, where coffee and pastries play a prominent role. But there's an authenticity here that Underwood's implausible rib-eating lifestyle completely lacks.
To the extent that Americans compete in the political humor business, it's only because of -- you guessed it -- more British knockoffs. But it's hard to export the jokes. One comedy writer, in this case a Scotsman, has successfully made power funny on both sides of the Atlantic. Armando Iannucci is the creator of both the British The Thick of It and HBO's Veep. Those of you who haven't seen The Thick of It might remember Ianucci's 2009 film based on the series In the Loop. (In any case, episodes are now available on Hulu.) Veep, a half-hour comedy show about a female vice president, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus of Seinfeld fame, is good but not great. The Thick of It, however, is brilliant. Its scope is broader -- the show spans all English political parties, ministers and civil servants -- yet its writing is tighter, subtler, more mature. Compare the two scenes below: Where Veep uses a sledgehammer, The Thick of It employs more precise tools.
"I was trying to use Jonah for intelligence."
"That's like trying to use a croissant as a fucking dildo. No, no, no, no, let me be more clear. It doesn't do the job. And it makes a fucking mess."
The Thick of It
"You're wanted at Downing Street ASAFP."
"Feasibly I should imagine."
Netflix reportedly spent $100 million making the dramatic House of Cards. But the funniest and most authentic American political comedy, Battleground, is on Hulu, which picked it up after Fox passed. Battleground is the "mockumentary" story of an election to the U.S. Senate in Wisconsin. The star lies in third place. There's no money in the production or the election. No spoilers as to the outcome here. But if you want American political authenticity, this is the one to watch.
Melinda Sue Gordon