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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

'House of Cards' Kicked the Cat

The late Blake Snyder named his massively successful screenwriting empire (3 of the top 16 selling screenwriting books on, including #1) after the principle of ‘saving the cat’. This is the idea that the writer includes something when we meet the hero that makes us root for them or like them (I’m paraphrasing). Think of her holding the door open for a little old lady with an armful of groceries; Or him saving a cat from a tree. The writer wants the viewer to identify with the protagonist and pull for them: Makes sense.

Kevin Spacey is the centerpiece of Netflix’s House of Cards; a remake of a British series starring the under-appreciated Ian Richardson. He is Francis Underhill, a powerful Congressman with bigger aspirations.  In the opening scene, a dog is hit by a car in Underhill’s neighborhood. He is the first on the scene and bends down over the whimpering animal (who remains off screen).

Spacey’s character sometimes speaks directly to the camera in this show. It’s a difficult narrative technique to do well: fortunately, it works. He comforts the dog, and then explains to the viewer that there are two kinds of pain: one that makes you strong, and one that is useless pain; pain that is only suffering. And he has no patience for useless things. A situation of useless pain calls for someone willing to act to do the difficult and necessary thing. So, he strangles the dog. Then he comforts the dog’s owners, who have been summoned by Underhill’s bodyguard.
This is not exactly your typical save the cat scene. Underhill does a mercy killing and assures the owners that he will track down the driver. But the narrative gives a decidedly darker tone to the actions. Underhill is ruthless, not sympathetic. His motives (“I have no patience for useless things.”) transforms what should be a “hey, what a nice guy” moment. He doesn’t really save the cat, he kicks it.

I believe that the theme of this show is Power. Perhaps more accurately, the appearance of power. The tone of the series is set with this opening scene. Our protagonist isn’t exactly a hero. And in fact, much like with Tim Robbins’ ‘The Player’, there’s not really anybody to root for. Christina (played by Kristin Connelly) is nice but she’s really just an aide who slept with the boss: who cares? And while Gillian Cole (Sandrine Holt) is certainly someone to like, she’s barely a second tier character and not that important. Everybody else is some shade of bad.

So, while the characters are interesting, the acting is solid and the storyline is compelling, we don’t really like anyone. Taking the ‘Save the Cat’ concept and twisting is appropriate for the show. It lets us know up front that we are going to have our work cut out for us rooting for the central character. And, as it turns out, for just about every other character as well.  But credit is due here. Just as I am very impressed with The Player, I’m on board for a second season of House of Cards. Even though I don’t like anybody…  

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