House of Cards

The Political Game

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

The past week has been eventful, with two announcements that had us glued to our television sets, the first being the demonetization of the Rs. 500/- and Rs. 1,000/- notes, and the second being the majority of America’s public voting in Donald Trump to be the President of the United States, and the most powerful man in the free world.

Both were surprises, bombs, even, that were dropped on an unsuspecting public, leading to shock, awe and panic. Both these decisions, I am sure, also involved tense newsrooms and action behind the scenes – the kind that directors and writers try so hard to bring to life on screen. It’s hard to imagine exactly what could have happened in the halls of our Prime Minister’s office given the superficial, almost comical ways that high stakes Indian political scenarios are played out in our films and television. However, it is possible to visualize the amount of work, the tension and the nerves that took over political offices in the United States on Wednesday morning, thanks to the abundance of excellent film and television shows that give us an intimate look into the workings of their system.

The most comprehensive show when it comes to American politics, is undoubtedly, The West Wing. The show ran from 1999 to 2006, a true television classic, and is perhaps the prime reason behind Aaron Sorkin’s iconic status as a screenwriter today. The West Wing explores the trials and tribulations of the senior staff at the White House as they attempt to run the most powerful country in the world, while balancing a no-nonsense President who couldn’t care less about being liked and the ground realities at Washington. It’s fast paced, full of quotable lines, an enormous amount of fun to watch, and most importantly, an education in American politics.

Although the The West Wing is the first show that comes to mind (my mind, at the least) at the mention of American politics, it is a decade old now, and runs the risk of being ever so slightly irrelevant.

Many consider its successor to be the Netflix original (and smash hit), House of Cards. It must be said though, that House of Cards is practically a fantasy show in comparison to The West Wing. House of Cards traces the ambitions of Frank Underwood, a Congressman, and his wife, Claire, as they go on a no-holds-barred spree to do whatever it takes to get to the top. House of Cards is just as well written and snappy as The West Wing, but is also extraordinarily exaggerated. The West Wing’s pull lay in its realism. There are plenty of moments in House of Cards where you can’t help but wonder how absurd the scenarios are. Having said that, Donald Trump is America’s President-Elect, so I’m starting to question myself about the show’s farfetchedness.

Finally, it is hard to ignore Veep, the HBO production starring multiple Emmy award winner, Julia-Louis Dreyfus. Veep narrates the story of Selina Meyer, a former US Senator who becomes the Vice President after a failed campaign, and is constantly relegated to matters of unimportance. Veep is entertaining, witty as hell and sharply written. It is unfortunate though, that the one show which is focused on chronicling a woman’s effort to get to the top seat has to be classified as a comedy.

{The West Wing is on FX, Veep is on Star World Premiere HD, and House of Cards is on Netflix}

The Guessing Game

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

I suppose the easiest way of explaining the Emmy awards is to say that they’re like the Oscars, but for Television. There is a Television Academy in Los Angeles, similar to the Motion Picture Academy, which honours the best of Prime Time Television. The awards are determined in an identical manner as well, through peer voting. The Emmy awards differ from the Oscars however, in the manner in which the votes are cast. Unlike the Oscars, where every voting member of the Motion Picture Academy (which is roughly about six thousand member strong) gets to vote in all the categories, the members of the Television Academy are split into groups based on the expertise. So in essence, actors vote for acting categories, writers for writing categories and so on, automatically making the voter group smaller, and the awards, very competitive. As if that’s not hard enough, the quality of television these days ensures that the difference between an Emmy and second place would have only been the barest of margins.

The nominations this year have been mostly predictable, like Game of Thrones finding itself nominated in a whopping twenty three categories, but with a few surprises, like Aziz Ansari being nominated in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series category, as well as his show Master of None, being nominated for the Outstanding Comedy Series. If Aziz Ansari wins, he will be the first of South Asian descent to win an Emmy in the lead comedy actor category (he’s the first to even be nominated), but faces stiff competition with the likes of Jeffrey Tambor (who plays a woman, Maura Pfefferman, in Transparent) and Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) also vying for the honour.

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The Night Manager found itself in the honours list as well, with the show being nominated for Outstanding Limited Series, and its leads, Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman nominated for acting honours. It’s hard to say if they’d win though, because non-Americans haven’t really had the greatest runs in the Emmys, and also because People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story is in the same category. People vs OJ Simpson scored twenty two nominations, making it second only to Game of Thrones with respect to the volume of nominations, so while I have a great deal of love for The Night Manager, I won’t be putting my money on them.

This year also saw The Americans finally being given the nominations it deserved after three years of being in the Emmy snub list. The show has been nominated for Outstanding Drama, and the leads, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys have both been nominated for the Outstanding Lead Actress and Actor in a Drama Series categories. Keri Russell is up against some stiff competition with Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder), Taraji P Henson (Empire) and Robin Wright (House of Cards), and so is Matthew Rhys, who is competing with the likes of Kevin Spacey (House of Cards), Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) and Rami Malek (Mr. Robot).

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I hope The Americans win an award this year, not because the performances and writing were better than that of their fellow nominees’ (I mean, did you take a look at that list? They’re all impeccable), but because The Americans deals with a subject matter that is complicated, and uncomfortable – it makes you empathise with your enemies, and turns your perceptions of the bad guy on its head. It is intense, for me, has taken over the spot which was filled by Better Call Saul as the best drama series on television at the moment. So could this be the year of the Emmy underdogs? Or will it be just another year where the rest of us television nuts wax lyrical about our deserving, off-beat favourites, but Game of Thrones and House of Cards split all the awards between themselves?
Probably the latter.

If This, Then That

A couple of days ago, I was reading about the algorithm, or the computer code that internet giants like Amazon and Netflix use to round up recommendations for their users. They’ve constantly been updating their algorithm, in order to provide better recommendations, and the name of the algorithm they use now, is called Pragmatic Chaos. I found this intensely fascinating – imagine engineers poring over complex mathematical equations to help you find the best way to burn another ten hours of your life, watching television. Pragmatic Chaos determines sixty percent of what is being watched/rented at Netflix, which is a ridiculously large number for sales that’s generated by a piece of code. Inspired by Pragmatic Chaos, and in the hope that this will contribute towards the remaining forty percent of viewing choices, here are my recommendations for what you should be watching, based on what you like.

If you like Sherlock, you will love Broadchurch: If you were to pin point to the reason for the appeal, and at times, frenzy behind the BBC’s contemporary take on Sherlock Holmes, it would be Benedict Cumberbatch’s version of Sherlock. His accent, his lack of empathy and his cheekbones make him a character who is hard to ignore and to dislike. Broadchurch, also produced by the BBC, has a similar emotionally unavailable protagonist (with similarly high cheekbones) in detective Alec Hardy, played by David Tennant. Much like Sherlock, Broadchurch has a wonderful working partner chemistry between the leading pair (Olivia Colman who plays Ellie Miller), too. If you enjoyed Sherlock, then it’s time to make way for Broadchurch as your new favourite detective series.
{Broadchurch is presently telecast on Colors Infinity}

broadchurch, television show reviews

If you like Friends, you will love Grace and Frankie: Most of my generation grew up on Friends, and I can’t remember anyone who disliked the part hilarious, part heart warming (and part bawdy) coming of age comedy. Most of my generation is also now all grown up and facing existential crises every other day, which is why I recommend Grace and Frankie, a show about two women in their seventies whose husbands leave them for each other, and now have to navigate the single life by themselves. This show is just as heartwarming, hilarious (and bawdy) as Friends. While Friends saw a lot of us wanting to become adults and grow up overnight, Grace and Frankie will make you feel a lot better about ageing.
{Grace and Frankie is on Netflix}

If you like House of Cards, you will love Veep: If you enjoy House of Cards and Francis Underwood’s takeover of the American government, it’s probably because you either have a twisted mind that’s similar to Francis’, or because you enjoy fast-paced, and entertaining shows based on American politics. If it is indeed the latter, then you will enjoy Veep, a political comedy that is as sharp as it is silly. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is excellent as Selina Meyer, the Vice President (Veep for short) of the United States who has startlingly little power. Veep is the light to the dark that House of Cards brought to politically themed shows, and although it is very funny, do not expect it to be as entertaining as the actual American elections that are going on right now.
{Veep is being telecast on Star World Premiere HD}

veep

Higher Powers

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

I am not entirely a fan of television which is politically themed, primarily because I don’t understand it. This was the reason I stayed away for as long as possible from the critically acclaimed, giant fan base having and first ever Netflix Original, House of Cards. There’s too much television to watch anyway, I told myself, and just like that, the first web-only show to win an Emmy, became a casualty in my watch list. Last week, however, thanks to a bout of dehydration that our city’s summer had blessed me with, I stayed at home and caught up with the show.

Kevin Spacey plays the gloriously vicious and power hungry politician, Francis J. Underwood. Frank, he of calculated ambition, has been a key player in bringing to power the new President of The United States, a role for which he expects to be rewarded by being appointed Secretary of State. However, the President decides to go in a different direction, and Frank leaves not with a position, but only a feeling of betrayal. This sets to motion a series of events where Frank extracts carefully planned revenge on all who wronged him, while doing all that he can to get to the top of the political food chain.

Kevin Spacey occupies the screen with a presence which I have, in all of the television I’ve watched so far, never encountered. He smiles when he doesn’t mean to, he stays calm when you know he’s burning inside, and ever so often, turns to the camera to talk to the audience and tell them what’s really going on in his signature southern drawl. The show is full of quotable quotes on power – “Friends make the worst enemies”, “Hunt, or be hunted”, “Power does not sleep in”, and Spacey leaves no room for doubt that from the minute the show begins to when it ends, it’s entirely Frank Underwood’s.

house-of-cards

The themes which dominate House of Cards are not anything novel when it comes to soap operas – backstabbing, loyal henchmen, well meaning addicts, corruption, call girls adept at the art of blackmail, and affairs all around, but they’ve been presented in a manner that is refreshing, an aspect for which the credit should go the brilliant cast of actors who form the show. Robin Wright, in particular, is spectacular as Frank’s frosty, devious wife. The Underwood marriage is much like eating cold, slightly stale pizza in the middle of the night – it’s not right, but you simply cannot get enough.

Some of the events, and the politics that are covered in House of Cards are so over the top, that there were many instances where I found it hilarious to even contemplate that this is a show which is supposed to reflect the life of American politicians, and American politics. Having said that, and considering the fact that we live at a time and age when someone like Donald Trump is a serious candidate for becoming the most powerful leader of the free world, maybe not that hilarious.

Popular talk show host, Stephen Colbert, in a recent episode asked Kevin Spacey if he ever thought that a particular storyline was too broad, and was too fantastic to ever happen in real life, to which Spacey responded that there have been multiple times when he thought that the story writers were really “pushing it”. “And then I turn on the news”, Spacey continues. “And actually, we’re the ones who are behind”.

{House of Cards is on Netflix and also cast on Zee Cafe}