Esquire Malaysia + Esquire Singapore, July 2014
A Politician We Can Trust
Kevin Spacey takes centre stage as House of Cards ushers in a new era in political dramas.
By Sophia Goh
It’s been 15 years since political drama The West Wing was first introduced to television audiences. Studio executives had initially refused to give it the green light, saying it was too liberal and nobody would want to watch a TV series about US politics. Series creator Aaron Sorkin was told that, “in the history of television, there has never been a successful series set in Washington DC on broadcast television.” His response was, “Why should I care about that?” The West Wing was eventually given the go-ahead, of course, and won nine Emmy Awards in 2000, setting the record for the most Emmys won by a show in its first season. Its total awards tally after seven seasons? Three Golden Globes and 26 Emmys, including four consecutive wins for Outstanding Drama Series, from 2000 to 2003.
Personally, I love The West Wing. I wish Rob Lowe (Deputy White House Communications Director Sam Seaborn) and Sorkin hadn’t left after season four, and I hated what happened to Richard Schiff’s character (White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler) – but nobody’s perfect. The West Wing was bold and groundbreaking for its time, and it really set the bar for political dramas on television.
With House of Cards, that bar has now been met. An adaptation of a BBC mini-series and based on a novel by Michael Dobbs, House of Cards is notable for being an online-only web television series, having premiered on the streaming service Netflix. It stars Kevin Spacey as the deliciously devious Francis “Frank” Underwood, a Democrat from South Carolina and House Majority Whip, whose political drive and ambition is matched only by his cunning and talent for manipulation. Also showcasing Robin Wright and Kate Mara, the show made history by earning the first major acting award for an online-only web TV series when Wright picked up the Golden Globe for best actress in her category.
That landmark honour might have gone to Wright, but make no mistake: the ever-brilliant Spacey is the star of the House of Cards universe. As Underwood, he’s so completely ruthless and captivating that we, as an audience, can hardly decide whether to love him or hate him. We certainly can’t take our eyes off him, and just when we’ve settled comfortably into the role of unseen spectator, bearing witness to the secret shenanigans of backroom politics, Underwood shatters that illusion by speaking directly to us.
Spacey the celebrity has never come across as the warm, fuzzy type. People don’t usually think “nice guy” when we think of the Oscar-winning actor; they think “substance” and “talent”. And whether it’s a deliberate move on his part, it’s just the way he likes it. His special brand of ambiguity and complexity, together with his off-screen persona, complement, if not fuel, roles such as Underwood. The way House of Cards is going, I dare say it’s only a matter of time before a Golden Globe or an Emmy, neither of which Spacey has won, is headed his way.