Screen Test

Tales from the White House to the prison cell

Actor Kevin Spacey's firing was the best thing to happen to House Of Cards, a show that has been chasing its tail for years.

Launched in 2013, it had a lot going for it in its early seasons. A political thriller about ambitious congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his Lady Macbeth wife, Claire (Robin Wright), was one of the first Netflix originals and the first salvo in the binge-watching era.

With its Shakespearean overtones, plummy production values, film-maker David Fincher directing the pilot and the lead character breaking the fourth wall, it marked the start of a migration of big-movie names to the small screen.

But it squandered that goodwill. There were too many far-fetched, melodramatic and labyrinthine storylines and its loftier goals - including a subtle portrait of a political marriage - were drowned out by its pulpy instincts.

On top of the orgy of political misdeeds, dreamt up for shock value and little else, there was the hammy acting, much of it from Spacey.

The latter's sacking after a sex-abuse scandal must have been a nightmare for the writers - but it was an opportunity to overhaul the series and do something they likely wouldn't have had the guts to do otherwise: kill off the protagonist and replace him with his more interesting wife.

Season 6 begins with Claire mourning Frank's death, which happened in suspicious circumstances that the show will unravel.

(From left) Robin Wright, Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear in House Of Cards. PHOTO: NETFLIX, FX

She has succeeded him as President of the United States, but is deeply unpopular, inspiring far more death threats and open disrespect.

The Macbeth factor is deliciously amped up when a creepy knocking sound starts coming from Frank's old room and his ring appears on his bed. The show is heavy-handed with its portents and symbols, but used judiciously, they are effective.

(Above) Patricia Arquette in Escape At Dannemora. PHOTO: NETFLIX, FX

But Frank's ghost, literal or otherwise, looms over the show in ways that are less fun. Claire has to contend with the billionaire Shepherd siblings, played by Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane, who pressure her to do their bidding because Frank owed them a favour.


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    Rating: 4/5

That fact and the misogyny Claire faces illustrate how politicians' wives, no matter how competent and well-intentioned, forever pay for the sins of their spouses in a way men seldom do.

But her war with the Shepherds soon descends into the same repetitive overplotting the show is fond of. Other bad habits resurface too, including an over-reliance on addressing the camera directly. And the political correctness is hamfisted at times, like when Claire delivers a lecture about the word "misandry".

Yet, there is still much to enjoy in the character along with Wright's commanding performance.

With them, you catch glimpses of the show this could have been.

Meanwhile, new limited series, the prison-break drama Escape At Dannemora, is based on two inmates' real-life flight from a maximum-security facility in New York in 2015.

Serving life sentences for murder, Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano) were helped by a married female prison worker, Tilly Mitchell (Patricia Arquette), whom they each had a sexual relationship with.

Prison-break tales typically focus on the mechanistic challenges - the planning, physics and timing required to pull it off.

But the barely contained despair and rigid hierarchies behind bars are also fecund ground for stories about the deepest, darkest quirks of human nature.

It is not so much about the physical barriers here, but the psychological ones in his would-be co-conspirators, Mitchell and Sweat, that the cunning Matt has to manoeuvre his way around.

It is a pas de trois, though - the other two have their own agendas and aren't blameless victims, even Mitchell. Your feelings shift as you learn more about each, though Mitchell's dumb and devoted husband elicits mostly sympathy.

The seven-episode series directed by Ben Stiller also offers a revelatory examination of desire. And it is all the more powerful for its unlikely focal point: a frumpy, menopausal woman who is unapologetically sexual.

The action unfolds at the speed of molasses in the first few episodes, but stick with it and you'll be rewarded with a pulse-quickening finish.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2018, with the headline Tales from the White House to the prison cell. Subscribe