Wednesday, March 25, 2015

House of Cards, or Let Things Go Out With Dignity

In 1994, I was watching PBS when a commercial for a rerun of House of Cards came up. Ian Richardson threw Susannah Harker off of the roof of the building while she screamed "Daddy!". I thought it was pretty dark as PBS went, and didn't really want to watch, but the image stayed with me. I learned later Ian Richardson's character went on to become Prime Minister. Not my cup of tea at the time.

Fast forward 19 years later: no one can stop talking about Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in Netflix's version of House of Cards for the American political scene. I'd grown decidedly more cynical in the ensuing years, and the description sounded good enough that I finally gave Netflix a chance (I'm an extremely late adopter). Before my husband and I committed, though, we finally watched the original on YouTube. There were in fact three seasons: House of Cards, To Play The King and The Final Cut. Each of them had four episodes, and I seem to remember that my husband and I got all of that watched in two days. (Shh, don't tell the kids.) We were blown away.

We were equally impressed by the first two seasons of the American show, which tracked pretty closely to the British version (more below). This year, we eagerly anticipated what we assumed would be the final season of the American show...and we were very disappointed. Here's why:

In the original House of Cards, Francis Urquhart is the patrician (not just Conservative) Chief Whip who was a party loyalist and expected to be rewarded by the new Prime Minister with a Cabinet Post. He's insulted when he's told instead that he needs to stay in his current position. He then embarks on a scheme that would make Iago jealous: he manipulates weaker journalists, lobbyists and politicians to not only unseat the Prime Minister but to get himself elected in his place. He is willing to resort to murder, not once but twice, including the young journalist Mattie Storin who became his smitten mistress- at the suggestion of his wife Elizabeth! (Oh, and why was she calling him Daddy as he threw her to her death? Because that turned her on.) His aide Tim Stamper helps him manipulate his other victims, but it's Urquhart who pulls the proverbial triggers. And it works. The viewer is left with a horrible taste of what goes on behind the scenes and the sociopaths who are willing to do it.

Ian Richardson as the calculating, deadly MP- and then PM- Francis Urquhart
In To Play The King, Urquhart finds himself at odds with the liberal and idealistic new king, played by Michael Kitchen. While the monarchy doesn't hold any real power, it is perfectly capable of moving public opinion against the Prime Minister and his party, and Urquhart won't have that. By the end of the series, Michael Kitchen is forced to abdicate in favor of his young son (and regented by his mother, the divorced wife of the king). Was this a play to take on the monarchy itself? Not at all. As Urquhart points out, his family marched down from Scotland in the 17th century to protect the crown when no one had ever heard of the present royal family. This, he assured the soon-to-be-abdicated king, was entirely personal. But some chinks in Urquhart's armor are beginning to show: he has to kill both his newest mistress (also picked out by his wife!) when she gets too close to the truth about what happened to Mattie and then Stamper when he decides he's tired of living in Urquhart's shadow. Urquhart is secure for now, but has he bitten off more than he can chew?

Diane Fletcher as Elizabeth Urquhart, ruthless to the end
In The Final Cut, the answer to that question is clearly "yes". Urquhart may be able to manipulate his own country, but foreign policy is not so easily controlled. Even worse, he has some significant skeletons in his closet from his time in the military: he killed two unarmed men while serving in Cyprus. Against all of this is his desire to secure his legacy and exceed Thatcher's term in office. As he feels younger politicians nipping at his heels, his wife Elizabeth assures him that she's got a plan in place to secure his legacy. Urquhart doesn't realize what her plan is until too late: she has him assassinated during the dedication of his monument. That, she tearfully tells him as he takes his last breath, was the only way that his memory could go untarnished. A satisfying ending to a series that made your jaw drop in every other scene.

Susannah Harker as Mattie Storin, one of the first bodies Urquhart needed to bury
The American House of Cards replaced the To The Manor Born Urquhart with a more Clintonesque Frank Underwood (only his wife Claire calls him Francis): he was born poor, but he was always intelligent and scheming. In the first season all he wanted was to be Secretary of State, but losing that appointment brought out a ruthlessness that ended up causing the death of a weak Representative and the ruin of his young mistress, Zoe. But when the dust had settled, Frank was the Vice President- this much closer to being able to oust the president.

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood. Whereas Urquhart was a master of subtlety, Underwood hides behind the confusion he creates
During the second season, he does just that, ably assisted by his wife, who lies about being impregnated by a man who's now a high ranking general (but she didn't lie about being raped) and then worms her way into the First Lady's inner circle and exploits the weaknesses in the First Marriage. The President, no fool, begins to understand just as Underwood has isolated him that he is the author of all of his problems, but ends up turning back to him just as everything falls apart and he decides to resign. Thus, Underwood, who has never won a national election, is now the President of the United States. Oh, and Zoe? She made it a little further than Mattie, but by the end of the first episode Frank's killed her; by the middle of the season he's made it impossible for her friends in the press corps to dig up anything on him. So what could possibly take him down? His chief of staff's obsession with a young prostitute who helped bring down the Representative in Season One, and, just maybe, the cracks in Claire's resolve.

Robin Wright as Claire Underwood. Can't you just hear her muttering "Out, out, damned spot!"?
So what happens in Season Three? As in the original, Frank finds that foreign affairs are much harder to manipulate than domestic ones, and the fact that his inexperienced wife is helming negotiations at the UN isn't a plus. On top of that, there's a general election to gear up for, and Underwood is informed that the party leadership doesn't want him to run. His solution: an end run around Congressional authority to begin an ambitious jobs program that will be piloted in D.C. by siphoning money off from...FEMA. When the inevitable storm is due to hit, Frank blinks (he may be a sociopath, but he can make political calculations better than anyone else)...and then realizes he shouldn't have: the storm turns before it can do any damage to the US. But now Frank has the goods to run on, and he's more than ready to take on the well-placed former Solicitor General, Heather Dunbar, with the covert aid of the Assistant Whip whom he's promised the Vice Presidency to, Jackie Sharp. But Jackie, a veteran whom we know has had a major crisis of conscience before, can stomach only so much, and she throws her support to Dunbar. It's a close race in Iowa, but ultimately Underwood pulls out a victory just as marriage to Claire is coming apart. As he leaves for New Hampshire, Claire walks out on him...and so ends Season Three.

Michael Kelly as Doug Stamper. Whereas Tim Stamper's relationship with Urquhart was undone by his ambitions, Doug almost lost everything over his human frailties. Don't worry- he got past that.
Oh, okay.

To say I was disappointed doesn't fully cover it. House of Cards is REALLY good, and it's rightfully credited with having revived Netflix after their PR fiascoes. But after 39 episodes of watching increasingly unlikeable people (however complex) do bizarre things, I'm sort of done.

I'm also sad to say that the writing didn't hold up as well this last season as it did in the other two (maybe the writers are done too). Really, the Russian President would get to terms SO QUICKLY about both troops in the Jordan Valley AND the release of an American prisoner? And they would be negotiating themselves- without aides? REALLY? Obviously, then, we need to throw Putin and Obama into a bunker for a few weeks and see what they come up with. But wait! What about Michelle? Because after those two hammered out everything, an overwrought Claire- the one who is usually calm and controlled- ruined a press conference.

The character of Claire was my biggest problem with the season. Everyone always says "Lady Macbeth" when they see an ambitious wife, but they meant it with Claire. And that irritates me. Lady Macbeth is easy to write, in part because it's been done so much: Woman gets a taste of the possibility of power she can get through her husband, then pushes her husband to get it, regardless of what literal or figurative bloodiness she'll need to indulge to help him. She does unspeakable things but blindly pushes on until her conscience finally destroys her. And her husband, who's been using her as a psychic crutch, crumbles now that she isn't there anymore.

Some hope...Elizabeth Marvel as Solicitor General Heather Dunbar...
Other than laziness, the reason this gets me in this story is that Elizabeth Urquhart as played by Diane Fletcher is, if anything, the anti-Lady Macbeth. She blithely makes suggestions to further his interests and even helps him commit murder at one point. However, she never shows any signs of remorse; while that may make her more of a sociopath, she's frankly more interesting than the woman who walks around with a fist in her stomach. She is like any other advisor, only she happens to be a woman. And in the end she doesn't have her husband murdered to appease her conscience but to save him, at least in the way that ultimately matters to him.

...Molly Parker as veteran and Assistant Whip Jackie Sharp...
As disappointing as the main female character was, I did enjoy watching both Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) and Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), and the Do Not Screw With Me bureau chief Kate Baldwin (Kim Dickens) made me smile every time she was onscreen. These were all competent, complicated, ambitious women, some more conflicted than others, but overall dedicated to catching their brass rings. Maybe Netflix can do spin off series on these three if it's going to be extra special greedy?

...and Kim Dickens as Bureau Chief Kate Baldwin
The original House of Cards had an undercurrent of humor in it's otherwise very dark tale of politics and ambition; I'm afraid the same can't be said for it's American counterpart, and that's a shame when it's so much longer. If it looks like this thing is going to be resolved in Season 4, let me know, but even then...well, I'm done anyway.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Aloha, Hawaii Five-O

My parents watched the original Hawaii Five-O when I was very young. I remember my father staring intently at the screen when it was on. This, I think, had something to do with the fact that there were so many Asian-American actors and characters, and in the 1970s that was a novelty on a major network.

When I was on the cusp of eighteen I saw Dr. No for the first time, and while young Sean Connery was as magnificent as you’ve heard, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of Jack Lord every time he was onscreen as Felix Leiter. Suddenly Hawaii Five-O seemed a lot cooler to me.

Before Jack Lord was a badass super cop, he was a badass CIA agent who could outsmart James Bond himself 
I’ve written elsewhere about the revival, but the shorter version: it isn’t nearly as well written, conceived or acted, but nostalgia is a powerful thing. (Also, Hawaii is just as beautiful.) When I realized that Netflix had every episode (well, almost) of the original series, my mission was clear: I was going to watch each one.

As of four nights ago, I am done. In many ways I’m better for it, but in some ways I’m ruined.

The show began in 1968, and it was gritty and nuts. Steve McGarrett is already the head of an elite state police force (there was never an origin story on the series) and he has a doozy of a case: a federal agent that he was in the Navy with has been found dead on a beach. The official story is that he drowned during a swim, but the audience knows that hours before he was killed he was in a sensory deprivation chamber (and that scene was genuinely frightening). McGarrett knows something’s wrong: the victim never went to the beach because he was too fair and burned too easily. He died some other way. His investigation leads him to Chinese Super Spy Wo Fat, as ruthless as he is intelligent. McGarrett intentionally puts himself in harm’s way, then goes on to spite Wo-Fat by remaining in full control of his senses long after his other victims broke; McGarrett is a determined son of a bitch. He’s playing a game of cat and mouse with Wo Fat while his team (Dan “Danno” Williams, Chin Ho Kelly and Kono Kalakaua) rush the Chinese agents guarding the facility where he’s being held. Wo Fat gets away, but Five-O captures the American double agent who was helping him. Suspense, international intrigue, investigation of minute details, gut instinct: welcome to Hawaii Five-O.

Jack Lord as Steve McGarrett. Is it just me, or does his hair look even better here than it did several years before?
McGarrett was supported for the first four seasons by Danno, Chin Ho and Kono. All of them were dedicated and skilled, but Williams and Kono were younger and in some episodes needed more of McGarrett’s guidance. In a very early episode, Williams accidentally killed a young addict (or junkie, as they frequently said on the show) in the line of duty. The audience saw exactly what happened, so this wasn’t a mystery. The story was the investigation into what the victim had been doing before, and that ended up clearing Danno. But this was not a happy ending, and McGarrett had to sternly remind Danny that no one said “this was anything but a lousy job”. That episode, out of all of the early seasons, set the tone: this was not a glamorous profession filled with beautiful people, but one that was filled with tragedy and not for the faint of heart.

James MacArthur as Dan Williams, the guy immortalized in the line "Book 'em, Danno" 
Of all of them, Kono had the smallest part. A native Hawaiian, he had deep connections to others in that community and had a lot of street sources. He was also the one most likely to fly off the handle and rush in before thinking. Sometimes that was useful- see his opening credits- but more often he needed to be pulled back. But as far as his personal life, viewers never had a clue.

Zulu as Kono Kalakaua, the young, impetuous cop who worked the native Hawaiian connections
The person on the team we got the longest glimpse at was Chin Ho. A very early episode found him being framed for corruption and accepting bribes. When he came home to his family, we saw for the first time that he was married with five (or was it seven?) children ranging from older teenager to kindergartener. As a fellow Asian-American, I was shocked to see his family presented so...normally in the late 1960s. For Chin, the most painful part of the attack on his reputation was the effect that it would have on them. He begged McGarrett not to talk to his teenage son even though he could have alibied him; like many parents and teens, they were going through a rough patch. In an episode that aired several years later, we saw his oldest daughter as a college student, dating the scion of a crime family (a young Erik Estrada!). Family was huge to Chin Ho, and he had uncles and cousins that provided him with information about both sides of the street.

Kam Fong Chun as Chin Ho Kelly, the one supporting player who actually got a send off when he left.
As for the personal life of Steve McGarrett, other than two episodes at the very beginning and very end of the series, we got very little insight into his early family life. (For the record, he had a sister named Mary and their father was shot by a criminal when Steve was young.) He was a Navy man and then he was a cop, and his jobs were his life. (He also never drank- not once- and he was frequently seen working overnight in his office.) He was “involved” with someone a only handful of times throughout the show, and in the middle of the series it was clear why: what kind of a woman was going to accept for a husband a man who was already married to his job?

For most of the twelve years, the show did a good job of marrying pop culture to crime solving. And when the case was a mystery, they tended to be very good. One of the episodes featured a serial killer who would break into the homes of young women, strangle them and then put blonde wigs on them- after he applied makeup to their corpses. Incredibly creepy to watch. While working the latest development on the case, a crime reporter whose wife was one of the victims insists on tagging along. McGarrett tells him to stay away because he can’t be objective, but the man persists. While investigating the man’s dead wife, they’re tipped off by a cabbie that she was having an affair. Meanwhile, the reporter picks up a tip that the murderer might be making the dead women up in the image of a prostitute he used to patronize. When he tracks down the woman, who’s since gone straight and is pregnant and married, he uses her “black book” to lure the killer to her, then kills the man as he is strangling the woman. McGarrett arrives in time to cart away the dead body, then has the reporter arrested too: he and Danny had figured out that the killer was able to access the women’s apartment’s because he got their keys when he was working for a car wash. As soon as McGarrett picked up on that detail, he knew the reporter had killed his wife: she never learned how to drive, which is why she always took cabs, and that was the real reason he needed to silence the serial killer. Nicely done.

McGarrett reported directly to the governor of Hawaii, and for the most part they worked well together. However, around Season Ten there was definite tension in the air, kicked off by speculation that McGarrett would make a great governor himself. It did not improve when the governor started complaining about Steve’s “Irish temper”. I was shocked when that line was first uttered, in part because viewers knew McGarrett was a very measured character, and in part because it was a shockingly prejudiced thing to say on television, even for the late Seventies.

Richard Denning as the long-serving governor of Hawaii
Five-O was supported by other people outside the force, most especially Che Fong, their forensics expert. The analyses he performed was cutting edge for the time, although I’m told that much of the ballistics information they used has since been discredited. In addition to forensics and the medical examiner, they also called in psychiatrists, and those episodes were guaranteed to be either a spooky or very silly.

Over time, all of the supporting characters cycled out (with the exception of the governor). Kono was replaced by Ben (the story is that the actor used a racial slur and Jack Lord had him fired) and officer Duke Lukela was added as a regularly recurring player. When Ben left, Duke stepped in to join the force. Chin Ho left at the end of the tenth season, and we actually did see him sent off (he was executed while undercover by a Hawaiian mobster who resented him for working for a white boss) and Williams was gone by the beginning of the twelfth. (Given that the show’s most famous line may very well be “Book ‘em, Danno,” it was pretty jarring that his departure wasn’t acknowledged at all.) He was replaced by tough Boston cop (of course…) Jim “Kimo” Carew, Hawaiian native Truck and, for the very first time, a female officer named Lori Wilson. When the writing was good, all of the supporting players were able performers, but when the writing wasn’t there...well, at least they didn’t flub their lines.

Al Harrington as Ben
Herman Wedemeyer as Duke Lukela
The final cast of Hawaii Five-O, including new additions Sharon Farrell as Lori, William Smith as Kimo and Moe Keale asTruck. If the final season wasn't that great, it wasn't their fault.
While the show kept up with the trends (Vietnam, spies, parade bombings, psychics, dreams, handwriting, grifters, gambling cons, Agatha Christie- really, music, past life regression…), there was an undercurrent of racial awareness through the run of the series. While there were plenty of white villains, victims and cons, many of them were Hawaiian. It was impossible not to watch the show and sense the production team’s discomfort over how the Hawaiian people were getting screwed over. To the extent he could, McGarrett stuck up for them. As much as he was a tough, clever cop who believed in the rule of law, he also wanted to make sure the little guy didn’t get the short end of it along the way. As someone who has watched almost every episode of the Law & Order franchise (at least as of last year), it was pretty amazing to see a cop so concerned about making sure everyone got due process. Notably, the show also had two separate episodes about how dangerous guns were; not, in any way, an episode you would see on today’s CBS.

While there were many aspects of the show that spoke to my liberal Democrat leanings, it was in many ways a reflection of its times, and the early shows had plenty of derogatory references to ethnic minorities. (Yes, the N-word was uttered once when Williams was undercover, as was the word “gook” in a very early episode.) Let’s not even talk about the episode that seemed to want to capitalized on the popularity of Blaxploitation films. The references to women were more pervasive and worse; I think it’s fair to see that the writers and producers weren’t early feminists. Oh, and let's not forget the earlier episodes that featured white actors playing Hawaiian roles in what I'll call Brown Face. Uncool.

The last season of the show was pretty weak and ended after only nineteen episodes, as opposed to the usual 22 to 24 the other seasons played. McGarrett finally got to arrest his arch nemesis Wo Fat, but it was among the worst written finales I’ve ever seen. None of the regular supporting cast was featured, and McGarrett ran around in a disguise for most of it. He did get to do a signature clever McGarrett move (he arranged a shadow to make it look like he’d hung himself) but it was, at best, a comic episode in a show that was never known for its comedic flair.

Egyptian-born Khigh Dheigh as Chinese super spy Wo Fat, McGarrett's archnemesis
All of which makes me re-examine the new Hawaii Five-0.

Having watched the old show, I finally understand where Duke and Lori (second season) came from. I also get why they brought in McGarrett’s sister Mary (and later had her adopt a baby). The constant cloud of supposed corruption around Chin Ho and his large extended family is a tribute to the old show, and Charlie Fong is an homage to Che Fong (but it would be nice if he came across as a little more competent). Perhaps most importantly, I’m completely okay now with the break in tradition that got rid of Wo-Fat; sending him out while he was strong was much better than dragging him back periodically to twist his moustache. And in this era of television, it’s a good thing that the supporting cast has more personality and backstory than they did in the original.

But...Alex O’Loughlin is no Jack Lord, and on its best day the writing is much weaker than the writing of the old show on its worst. Perhaps most importantly, the new Hawaii Five-0 isn't saying anything that isn't already being said on television in a lot of places (even if it's saying it in a much more attractive locale). And if there's one thing we've learned from the old show, no one's going to thank you for sticking around long after you should have left. Well, thanks for the memories, Jack Lord and company. When you were good, you bordered on great, and you're a tough act to follow.