Failure is a wellspring of British comedy, but its American counterpart rewards optimism.
House of Cards is not an isolated phenomenon. Despite the glut of television series that deal in Washington intrigue, genuine political satire is remarkably hard to find. There’s farce (Alpha House), drama (The Americans), and farce masquerading as drama—with more self-awareness in some cases (Scandal) than in others (Homeland, State of Affairs). The past few years have seen two series about a female secretary of state inspired by Hillary Clinton (Political Animals, with Sigourney Weaver, and Madam Secretary, with Téa Leoni). And yet viewers looking for political fare with a real comic edge have had nowhere to go but HBO’s Veep, an Americanized variation of the British series The Thick of It imported to our shores by the original’s creator, the Scotsman Armando Iannucci. What is it that the Brits understand about this enterprise that we Americans don’t?
Let’s begin with House of Cards, which reveals what happens when dark political satire makes its way across the Atlantic. The BBC version, adapted from a novel by the former Thatcher adviser Michael Dobbs, describes the swift rise to power of Francis Urquhart, played with lupine relish by the great Ian Richardson, a founding member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. An old-moneyed conservative and the chief whip of the Tory government, Urquhart at the outset is content with his job keeping the parliamentary troops in line—“putting a bit of stick about,” in his indelible phrasing. But when he is denied an anticipated promotion, he begins a vengeful quest that will win him the prime ministership by the end of the four-episode miniseries. (House of Cards is the first in a trilogy that also includes To Play the King and The Final Cut.)