Putting the vice in vice-president

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TO HOC kevin spacey 1 Sony DIRTY POLITICS: Kevin Spacey, left, as Francis Frank J Underwood with Robin Wright, second from left, as his loyal wife and confidante in the rivetting new season of M-Nets House of Cards.

Genius puppeteer Francis “Frank” J Underwood (Kevin Spacey) returns in the political drama, House of Cards. With his pawns playing their part, he has exacted his revenge and wields more power than ever. But a fresh spate of corruption, scandal and betrayal could ruin it all. Debashine Thangevelo looks at how a looming exposé on the vice-president of the US could sound his death knell in this darker second instalment.

HOUSE of Cards struggled to get networks to come to the party when the idea was first pitched. While the decision-making piranhas of the TV Mecca in the US weren’t swayed to part with their dollars, Netflix, realising what a goldmine this series would become, wasted no time in signing the contract.

Several nominations later, this Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning series has a very large fan base, with TV critics swooning over it.

House of Cards resonates for myriad reasons. It has the best of Hollywood’s talent pool, from Kevin Spacey to Robin Wright to Michael Kelly, among others. The storylines are razor-sharp, superbly written and underscored by intrigue and drama. This whirlpool of revenge and ruthless ambition transforms every frame into a nail-biting scene and effortlessly reels in viewers.

Of course, fans are also incentivised by Spacey’s acting prowess as an influential political mastermind. His ruthlessness, which often blurs the line between genius and maniac, sweetens the intrigue.

Commenting on the sway of the series, Spacey says: “These kinds of stories and this world of intrigue resonate no matter where you are from. That was one of the things I loved about playing Richard III on stage. That was a play written by a British playwright hundreds of years ago which audiences in cities all over the world still love. We sold out in every single city we played, everywhere from Beijing, Istanbul and Naples to Sydney. Why is that? Because people love stories. If it’s a good story and you do it well, people will come out to see it.

“The world of politics is a great deal about what is revealed and what is not revealed. This show is like that, and that’s why it’s so addictive. Francis is based on characters created by Shakespeare, such as Iago and Richard III. Richard III is who Michael Dobbs based the original Francis on. And that’s where the idea of the direct address to the audience comes from – Shakespeare created that for Richard III. There is also a Shakespearean quality to the investigation of the characters.”

When it comes to his character, Spacey admits that there are times when even he is surprised: “Beau (Willimon, the show’s creator) and I will talk about some aspect of Francis’s character and he will go off and write. Then I will get the script and say: ‘Gosh, I didn’t know that’.

“It’s very exciting to continue that exploration of what we’ll reveal to the audience and allow them to think without actually telling them.”

As for the series exploiting the anti-hero trend, Spacey agrees: “Absolutely. Over the past 15 years, there have been lots of productions full of characters who are not very good at their jobs, have terrible personal lives and are anti-heroes. The fact that these dramas have been so hugely popular shows that is what audiences want. They want complexity, and they invest in these shows in a way that superhero movies can only wish their audiences would invest. There is a long history of these dramas, starting with The Sopranos and moving through Dexter and Breaking Bad. Audiences have told the creatives, ‘Give us complex stories and characters who aren’t cookie-cutter’ – and that’s what we have delivered.”

Where does Francis slot in then?

“With Francis, I’m trying to play a fully rounded human being who is as capable of any number of emotions as anyone else. I don’t restrict my characters to one-line descriptions or put them in a nice convenient box marked ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I just have to play him and let the chips fall where they may.”

And, boy oh boy, do those chips fall in this gripping second season.

While Francis is about to be sworn in as vice-president, his frenemy journalist (and ex-lover), Zoe Barnes, teams up with Lucas Goodwin, the senior political editor at the Washington Herald, and veteran journalist Janine Skorsky, to dig up dirt on him.

Naturally, word of their investigation reaches Francis who, again, cleans up with his usual modus operandi of frame-ups and murder.

Meanwhile, Claire finds a new BFF in the first lady, and Raymond Tusk proves to be a serious thorn in Francis’s side and an orchestrated diplomatic crisis looms.

Damage control is what Francis does best. And this season promises to be another exhilarating ride through the fictional US political playground. Expect a minefield of suspense, manipulation and much more wheeling and dealing.

• House of Cards airs on M-Net (DStv channel 101) on Friday at 9.30pm.


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