Well Played, Netflix: ‘House Of Cards’ Chapters 1-3

(Originally posted on Justin + 7.)

HOUSE-OF-CARDSI figured I’d be writing something about the Oscars today, as I normally would do a few days before the big show, but since I have been covering them since the nominees were announced anyway — and particularly heavily this week — I have almost nothing left to say. (Plus, I’m still in denial about a few of the big winners.)

So let’s talk about TV. TV? Well, it’s sort of TV. Now movies are being released on VOD, meaning you watch them on television. And Netflix released House Of Cards Season One in its entirety all at once, like a movie. So what’s the difference between movies and TV anymore? Is there one? Or is House Of Cards just one long-ass movie?

Either way, Netflix’s sizable investment in this original program has clearly paid off, at least buzz-wise. House Of Cards is the first high-profile show to dump an entire season on us all at once, and also to bypass what we currently think of as “TV” completely. It’s a big deal… and yet, not, because anybody who is remotely forward-thinking has already realized that our current mode of television consumption is going the way of the dinosaur. (Extinct… and then resurrected eons later on a remote island somewhere near Costa Rica.) I say good riddance to TV in its current incarnation — 95% of these channels are clogged with reality junk I’d never dream of watching, like Real Housewives Who Hate The Color Of Their Toilet and Amish People Doing Handstands In Berlin. And yet, I’m paying for practically all of these channels, because I want to watch… let’s see, about three shows… on two channels. Someday, we should be able to just pay for the channels we want, as I do for HBO, which gives me Girls, Game Of Thrones, Veep, The Newsroom, and Enlightened, plus an occasional movie. Very bang-for-buck-worthy. The rest of cable gives me Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and… wait, why do I pay for cable? Note to self: look into that.

Cable providers are still, for the time being, hell-bent on screwing us into paying for masses of content we don’t want or need; meanwhile, we the consumers anxiously await their demise. Enter Netflix. Netflix has made a few missteps in the past, like when they tried to separate their streaming and DVD service into different companies and then said, “Just kidding!” when everyone predictably hated that idea. (I also find their website rather dysfunctional… but that’s another topic.) I’m willing to forgive these transgressions in light of Netflix’s current forward-thinking tactics, which bypass a lot of unnecessary pains we normally have to deal with (cable subscription, repetitive advertisements, pop-ups) on conventional television and give us just what we want: everything, right now, easily.

Netflix could have raised their overall subscription rates. ($7.99 isn’t too shabby.) They could have asked subscribers to pay an extra premium for original content. Or forced some kind of advertising. It’s possible they will in the future, but for now, House Of Cards comes just as conveniently as any other show streaming on Netflix, and TV junkies are binging on it. A number of people have already finished the show, which debuted February 1, with all 13 “chapters” available simultaneously. It would’ve been a smarter business model to roll them out more gradually, I think, maybe 2-3 per week, to allow people to hunger for it and necessitate a longer subscription to complete the series. But whatever.

House Of Cards is the rare show that is more notable for how its being distributed than it is for the actual content. It has the buzz and prestige of an HBO or AMC series, but in quality and execution feels more like it belongs on FX. Which is fine. House Of Cards is glossy, soapy, compelling, and, ultimately, rather empty… from what I gather based on the first three episodes, at least. (I’m less a binge-watcher than many of my peers… out of time constraints, if nothing else.) It’s a political show on the one hand, since it takes place in Washington D.C. and concerns a congressman who gets screwed out of his rightful position as secretary of state by the president elect. But it also could care less about politics. The setting is merely a juicy hook, one that hasn’t been overdone on TV the way hospitals and law firms have. It’s supposed to feel a little transgressive, that a “respectable” congressman might secretly be fucking with everybody. Rather than display his outrage, our protagonist does the more politically savvy thing and plays nice, while secretly undermining the new president and his allies and pulling strings to make sure Washington plays by his rules, whether they know it or not. It’s sort of an exaggeration of the way the political world actually works; I doubt many politicians take such devilish delight in pulling strings, or do it so knowingly, yet I imagine the results are the same.

It’s a fun premise, because bad (or at least, somewhat naughty) characters tend to be more satisfying than goody-goodies — and, after all, House Of Cards is modeling itself after Breaking Bad, Mad Men, going all the way back to the grandaddy of premium cable antiheroes, Tony Soprano. Kevin Spacey seems to be having some degree of fun playing Francis Underwood… at times, a little too much fun, perhaps, since his Southern accent wavers between “nonexistent” and “high school production of a Tennessee Williams play.” Not helping: his character’s penchant for breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to camera, which lends it a jokey theatrical quality I’m not sure is in the show’s best interest. (This gimmick almost never works on TV… which is why Sex & The City wisely jettisoned it in Season Two, and became an infinitely better program for it.) The dialogue, too, feels well-suited for a play, though that works for the aesthetic House Of Cards aims for — decadent, conspiratorial, and larger-than-life. The performance simultaneously reminiscent of Spacey’s roles in The Usual Suspects (the wheeler-dealer), American Beauty (upper-crust husband who could stand to be in better shape), and Margin Call (maybe only because he suffocates an invisible dog in the series’ very first scene… never mind about that).

Robin Wright plays his Lady Macbeth of a wife, a compelling and unusual character who always seems to be up to something, even if we have no proof that this is the case. She sure can be ruthless when the situation calls for it, and yet it’s never clear just what agenda she’s pushing. (That’s not a bad thing, but an intriguing one.) If I had to give one performer in House Of Cards a gold star and a cookie, it’d be Robin Wright.

One interesting sidenote here, though — though she is fiercely loyal, their relationship is apparently sexless, and Underwood displays no real attraction to women at all. Is this foreshadowing? Merely an oversight by the writers? Or somehow a result of Spacey’s homosexuality? I’m sure one way or another this is resolved in future Season One episodes, since traditional TV logic would suggest more flirtation between Underwood and the cute young reporter he befriends, but so far he shows a curious lack of temptation. Given how unsubtle most of the rest of House Of Cards is, I have a hard time believing I’m being teased and assume it’s just a weird omission.

I’m also a fan of Kate Mara — I have been for awhile, long before her sister Rooney popped up on the radar. (This pilot is directed by David Fincher, the man who essentially put Rooney on the map, which I doubt is a coincidence.) She is given the relatively thankless role of Zoe Barnes, the eager-beaver reporter who wants to start a politico gossip blog (oy!), which starts her character as a pesky cliche. (Trying to include blog culture in TV and movies seldom works, and will immediately date it.) Luckily, the series has a few more interesting ideas in mind for her. She forms an (unlikely) alliance with Underwood and soon becomes the hot-shot she’s always wanted to be, earning both admiration and scorn from her superiors and rendering her pretty cocky. Like most characters, it’s still pretty unclear where exactly her morals lie, but the newspaper scenes are fun even if we’ve seen such scenes dozens of times before. Both politics and journalism play out in the most “TV” way possible in House Of Cards, but I doubt it ever yearned for documentary realism.

House Of Cards is like The West Wing‘s sourpuss cousin, cynical where Aaron Sorkin was idealistic and patriotic. It may even be a smidge more realistic; it’s absolutely more formulaic. It feels borne out of a pitch meeting rather than the mind of any individual. The characters, thus far, are wholly one dimensional, and though they sometimes behave badly, it’s a pretty “safe” kind of bad; it’s basic cable mischief rather than HBO-level depravity. Netflix clearly doesn’t want to alienate viewers who might find more controversial hijinks off-putting. House Of Cards always feels like it’s playing it safe, checking all the right boxes — and it doesn’t take any risks. Its very inception feels almost… well, political.

Perhaps the most crucial mistake — for me, anyway — is that although Underwood gets slighted at the beginning of the series, we the audience never particularly feel it. We don’t particularly care whether he’s secretary of state or not, so his quest for revenge feels hollow. We get precious little sense of who he was before House Of Cards‘ opening — was he a good guy? A bad guy? Has he always had it in for his fellow politicians, or was this the moment that changed? Three episodes in and I’m not that invested in what happens to him, or to anyone. House Of Cards is much ado about nothing — we see a lot of work done on an education bill, on Mrs. Underwood’s clean water charity, on the ousting of one secretary of state and the nomination of another. But to what end? The audience isn’t given enough information or emotional involvement to form an opinion on any of these things. They just happen, and we’re neutral all the while.

Of course, House Of Cards was designed that way — to go down as easily as possible, to turn off the least amount of viewers. To be binge-watched. Mission accomplished. I suspect that the fact that it could be consumed all at once has led some to overpraise it; what’s better than one great episode of television? How about thirteen pretty good ones? I quite enjoyed the pilot (even if Fincher’s direction was surprisingly just serviceable), was marginally less keen on the following episode, and dug the third. I could easily watch more, and probably will. But if this aired week to week on FX, would people go so crazy for it? So far, House Of Cards is nowhere near the caliber of the very best cable offerings — which, granted, is a very high bar. All its boldness is in the way it’s been packaged, rather than in the show itself.

Any criticism I have of House Of Cards might go out the window depending on where the show is going, though, which is exactly what makes Netflix’s release strategy frustrating for anyone trying to review it. You wouldn’t turn off a movie a quarter of the way through and sit down to write a full response; TV, as we know it, is meant to be digested in segments and discussed on the same timeline as everyone else who’s watching. This distribution model makes it hard to talk about House Of Cards until you’ve seen the whole damn thing, and if you wait too long to do so no one will care anymore. So get it while it’s hot!

See, now here I am again talking about the way we’re watching House Of Cards rather than the content. In that respect, I can’t help but feel that Netflix’s Machiavellian machinations are even trickier than anything we’ve seen from Francis Underwood, trying to beat TV at its own game by changing all the rules. For good? For evil? Or just for fun? As with Underwood, it’s probably that last one.

But fun it is. I’ll give House Of Cards that. It’s the best TV show that’s never been on TV.

Thoughts?

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