China Goes to Washington

来源: 2018-09-04 14:59


Frank Underwood is certainly having a high old time of it. Not content with climbing the power ladder in Washington, D.C., the anti-hero of House of Cards, played by Kevin Spacey, has also secured the allegiance of millions of fans across China.

Based on a 1990 BBC-produced UK drama, House of Cards premiered last year and heralded a new era of TV-series distribution. Its producer, Netflix, a subscriptionbased media streaming website based in the United States, turned its lack of a traditional cable channel for distribution purposes to its advantage and released all 13 episodes of its first season simultaneously for online subscribers.

Last year, Netflix made a deal with to grant Chinese audiences a place at the feast. made the decision to allow viewers to watch the show for free and make their revenue from advertising. Given the sheer size of the Chinese TV market, particularly online, this represented a smart move. Now on its second season, the show has enjoyed massive success in China and currently stands as the most-watched foreignproduced TV show in the country.

Part of the shows popularity is undeniably rooted in the younger generations fascination regarding all things American. Now that China is vying with the United States for the top spot economically, it is only natural that the public would wish to learn more about Americas history and its political culture. TV shows such as House of Cards provide a window for Chinese viewers to peer through.

The blitzkrieg pace of the storytelling is undoubtedly another draw for Chinese audiences. The plot of House of Cards unfolds at breakneck speed, its narrative a veritable rollercoaster of fresh deceptions, double-crossing and reversals of fortune, with practically every episode ending on a cliffhanger. Many viewers regard this as an antidote to domestically produced dramas, which they feel move far too slowly.

Power plays

Despite the shows popularity, however, some viewers in China have bristled at what they feel is the shows negative portrayal of their country. In the shows second season, a corrupt princeling, Xander Feng from China, was depicted making an under-the-table deal with U.S. billionaire Raymond Tusk, which allows Feng to launder his money through a casino and thereby make political contributions to influence U.S. policies.

Perhaps viewers should take the shows depiction of China, and of U.S. politics, with a grain of salt, however. Inevitably, whoever inhabits the role of antagonist will also be imbued with certain negative characteristics. While the shows observations about the cutthroat, ultra-competitive world of U.S. politics are most likely based in fact (the series showrunner Beau Willimon served on Hilary Clintons 2000 Senate campaign staff), certain elements have been heightened or exaggerated for dramatic effect.endprint

The shows main prerogative, therefore, is drama and not realism. Its universal themes of power plays and deception have echoed down through the ages in countless artistic works and narratives. Its story could be arguably be relocated to any time or place and still make perfect sense. Though its subject matter may be timeless, however, its narrative is tied to the present. In order for stories of this type to succeed, there needs to be a credible antagonist who exerts enough power, influence and cunning to be considered a worthy opponent.

In past decades, for instance, the antagonists of many popular U.S. films were from Russia, then considered to be Americas opposite number. Looking around at the current global political landscape, that role could now only conceivably be filled by China. The makers of House of Cards have declared that they have no partisan political agenda and as one of the shows creative staff, Chinese-American playwright Kenneth Lin, explained in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, House of Cards is an exploration of power at the highest levels. Today, you cant tell that story without considering China.

Indeed, viewers should take heart in the fact that there is now broad recognition that, economically, culturally and politically speaking, China is now a force to be reckoned with.

Youth appeal

Intelligent, dapper and charming yet also utterly ruthless and, at times, sociopathic, the fictional Majority Whip of the U.S. Congress may seem somewhat a strange candidate for such widespread adoration. To explore this, Beijing Review contacted some Chinese viewers and asked them what exactly about the show appealed to them.

Like many people her age, Wang Yu, a 27-year-old customs officer in Shanghai, was introduced to the show by her friends and soon became an avid follower of the series. “Ive watched both series and even viewed the first season three or four times while I wait for the next,” she said.

Wang says that the show is very popular among her cohort. “I think that Chinese people of my generation grew up in the age of opening up and diplomacy so we have a lot of curiosity about other countries. I studied American and English literature in university and I am interested in politics generally, so naturally I am very curious about America and how its political system works,” she said.

Shang Xi, a follower of the show in Beijing, said House of Cards is the first American TV show with a political context she has watched, adding that she was surprised by how gripping it is. “Ive learned a lot about how the U.S. government works and the function of each department.” She also elaborated on what sets the show apart from its Chinese counterparts, saying that political shows in China seldom cast leading characters in a negative or deceptive role.endprint

Wang visited America in 2012 and in addition to Washington, D.C., made stops at New York, Las Vegas and Miami, the settings of shows in the CSI franchise, of which she is also a fan. Now, having seen House of Cards, she is eager to revisit the American capital. “I would like to go to Washington, D.C. again with a fresh perspective. I think I would have a new appreciation of the city,” she said.

All the worlds a stage

In spite of its modern trappings and contemporary setting, House of Cards is at its core a Shakespearian tragedy with Frank Underwood the latest in a line of villain protagonists that stretch back to Richard III and Macbeth.

Like its earlier UK counterpart, the show also employs the highly theatrical device of“breaking the fourth wall.” At critical junctures in the story, Underwood turns to the camera and addresses the audience directly, often explaining the reasoning behind his actions or the lessons that can be inferred from various situations. For Shang, the shows overall message is clear. “Hunt or be hunted—I think its universal in the political and business world,” she said.

Despite his villainous nature, Wang has a very balanced take on the character. “He is realistic and pragmatic and has his own view in life. He does some questionable things to achieve his goals but he also helps people and encourages reform.” The show even has its very own Lady Macbeth figure in Franks wife, Claire Underwood, whom Wang also professes admiration for. “She stands by her husband, and helps him to realize his strategies. She is a very strong woman.”

The shows theatrical nature certainly makes sense in the context of its cast and creators. Its star, Academy Award-winning actor Spacey, has often forgone lucrative film roles for the opportunity to devote himself to theatrical projects and has acted as artistic director of the famous Old Vic theatre in London since 2003. The shows creator Beau Willimon is a playwright and has produced many works for the stage including Farragut North, which went to be adapted into the 2011 film The Ides of March, written and directed by George Clooney.

Though the show does present the allure of the darker side of human nature, it can be argued the message it presents is not entirely amoral. A study of other examples in the same genre is instructive. In line with their Greek antecedents, the protagonists of such tragedies are undermined by a fatal flaw or hubris. The central characters thirst for power generally results in grisly consequences for both their enemies and those close to them. Without wishing to spoil things for viewers of future seasons, these stories rarely, if ever, end well.endprint


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