Ian Richardson, who played the lead role in what is far and away my favorite television series of all time, died today. The show was a twelve-hour trilogy ("House of Cards," "To Play the King," and "The Final Cut") that aired during the early 1990s on the BBC and was also broadcast in America on PBS. Richardson played a Machiavellian, ultra-conservative Tory politician who was, more or less, a cross between Margaret Thatcher and Richard III. (His wife Elizabeth is meant to be a modern-day Lady Macbeth, and surely qualifies as one of the most quietly terrifying spouses of a political leader ever to appear on a television or movie screen.) According to this obituary, the show was a sensational hit in Britain, but, over the years, I've found that many Americans have never heard of it. I've made it something of a personal mission to introduce my friends to it one by one--with the result that, at this point, I've seen the series more times than I can count--and now I'll take the message to a wider audience: If you're reading this blog, you are a probably a political junkie; and if you are a political junkie, you will love "House of Cards."
The show is, first and foremost, terrific entertainment: well acted, suspenseful, incredibly funny in a dark way. But, at its root, it's also a very smart commentary on the relationship between democracy and power: how power is acquired; how it is misused; and how, even in supposedly enlightened democratic polities, it frequently becomes an end unto itself. Richardson's character (Francis Urquhart, known in the British tabloids as "FU") is a pathologically cynical politician--the anti-Jed Bartlett. But, while he is a monster, he is an exceptionally charming, entertaining, self-aware monster. And FU isn't just trying to seduce the other characters: With his frequent asides to the audience (sometimes spoken, sometimes nothing more than a sly smile at the camera), he is also trying to seduce us. In the final scene of the trilogy's second act, having just used criminal means to win a high-stakes power struggle, FU stares into the camera and says to the audience, "You still trust me, don't you?" Then he breaks slowly into a smile, and says, "Of course you do." The suggestion is that, in a democracy, we get the leaders we deserve. The show is a warning of sorts about just how easy it is for cynicism in politics to triumph: Richard III for the democratic age. All of this is anchored by Richardson's extraordinary performance. See it; you won't regret it.