By Ken Tucker
Updated March 29, 1991 at 05:00 AM EST

What a satisfyingly nasty Masterpiece Theatre we have here, the first of four weeks of political back-stabbing and wicked ambition. House of Cards speculates on what might have happened after Margaret Thatcher left office. At the center of the story is Francis Urquhart — played by Ian Richardson (Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy) — Tory party whip and chief adviser to the new prime minister, Henry Collingridge (David Lyon).

Richardson’s Urquhart is a prim, efficient public servant whose pinched politeness hides a seething urge to bring down the new government and install himself at the head of another one. He spends all his time turning one official against another, planting damaging information in the press, lying to, wooing, and blackmailing everyone in sight, all the while maintaining a serenely servile air. Urquhart is a sort of malevolent Jeeves, and the way Paul Seed has directed it, House of Cards‘ most effective stylistic touch is the way Richardson periodically looks straight into the camera and tells us Urquhart’s thoughts, confiding his next devious move before he makes it.

Andrew Davies (Mother Love) has written a script in which no one is a hero — people are either corrupt or stupid or both. This sustained misanthropy is at first invigorating; American television is always so careful to include at least one character we can identify with, or feel represents Good, that Davies’ cynicism is refreshing. But occasionally that cynicism becomes wearying, even depressing, and House of Cards begins to lose steam around the third episode. But the series rouses itself for a bang-up, suspenseful finish, as Urquhart scrambles to pull off his outrageous coup. This political satire operates at a level of sharpness that American television hasn’t seen since Robert Altman’s HBO miniseries Tanner ’88.