Photo: Patrick Habron for Netflix
When The House of Cards was first aired on BBC, in late 1990, television critics wrote that it was “credible and compelling stuff” and a “first-class drama series”. Now, not even those who love Ian Richardson, who relish his delivery and his charm, could say that the original hasn’t aged badly (and leave aside the third season, which was bad at the time).
Why is this? Michael Dobbs, who wrote it, once worked as an aide to Thatcher. Beau Willimon, who refashioned it for today and set it in Washington, had some experience as a political aide of his own (beginning, at the age of 23 with volunteer work in a Senate campaign).
Is it because we need more detail?
The most compelling evidence of this is the length of the American House of Cards. The first season of the UK show was four episodes of one hour each. The first season of the American show was thirteen episodes of one hour each.
One of the most remarkable features of Willimon’s expansion of the original is the creation of Claire Underwood. In the original, Urquhart’s wife was a cardboard Lady Macbeth. In this she shares the stage on equal terms with her husband – she is ruthless and icy but thoughtful and – rarely – vulnerable.
Willimon is obsessed with getting the details correct – right down to where the light switches actually are on the walls of the Oval Office. The original made do with a vague outline of a scandal involving shares which taints the Prime Minister. In the refashioned series nothing is vague. If there is a plotline about cyber terrorism, we are told all about the dark net.
This is different from the vogue for backstory – which would spend two hours of the series explaining what made Frank and Claire Underwood the way they are today.
We like watching a series that is twelve or twenty hours long. We like binge-watching. Why? Why is this period in film/television history more likely to come up with The Sopranos (86 episodes of 50 minutes each) than The Godfather (178 minutes)?