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Monday, April 8, 2013

Online TV Review: Netflix House of Cards

If you ever want to hear me talk for hours on end, ask me what I think the world of TV will look like in the next decade.

Fortunately, you haven't asked me that, so I can spare you the long tirade I would have about time-shifting, democratization of content, social promotion, etc.

Instead, what I can tell you about is one attempt to create the future of TV: House of Cards from Netflix.

Mr. Underwood is no Lincoln.
First off, be assured that this is no half-baked production, run on a shoe-string. No indeed. This is a full fledged attempt to challenge the likes of HBO, Showtime, AMC, A&E, and those other ones, what are they? ABCBSBC? Something?

Robin Wright, in one of many scenes requiring formal attire. 
From leading actors Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright (and the very accomplished Michael Kelly), to notable directors Joel Schumacher, James Foley, and David Fincher (who is also one of the executive producers), it's clear that Netflix was swinging for the fences. Plus, it's another in a long line of US takes on UK programs - House of Cards originally was a mini-series on BBC in the 1990s.


Those unfamiliar with the Americanized premise will want to know that this is the story of Francis "Frank" Underwood (Kevin Spacey), Democratic whip and Machiavellian puppet master; and his wife Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), no slouch on the puppet master front. This power couple begins the series disappointed to learn that a promised promotion to Secretary of State has been denied by the president-elect, Garrett Walker. What follows is a reveal of the very dangerous Rube-Goldberg machine that is Washington politics.

As always, I don't like to give too much away, especially for a program that I've enjoyed. What can be said is that the audience starts off a fan of the Underwoods; they have been wronged, and deserve a little payback. Watching the series, though, one must decide just how far their loyalty to these characters goes, much in the same way most of the players in this drama must decide who they are loyal to.

Spacey is wonderful in this part, he fits it perfectly with a subtle Southern charm, and Wright displays a complimentary placidity necessary to portray the coldly calculated arrangement these two have as they endeavor to reach the pinnacle of the Washington power pyramid. Much like The Shield, Weeds, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men, our heroes are no saints, and the cast does an excellent job of convincingly engaging the audience as co-conspirators.

Kate Mara and Kevin Spacey.
Other actors figure prominently, as there are many recurring players, but worth mentioning is Kate Mara (most notably of American Horror Story). She does a fine job here, although casting-wise I found it tough to see her in her role as the young, gritty, and ambitious news reporter trying to find her way in a changing news world. The youth reads, and she is a fine performer; I just feel she was miscast. She comes across as too innocent to be as ambitious and ruthless as her actions demand.

For those who enjoy beltway intrigue and political jockeying, House of Cards doesn't disappoint. It's like The West Wing without the epic idealogical speeches and with enough bite to take the head off of President Bartlett.

But this won't be judged on its quality alone. It has other dimensions unique to Netflix being its parent. For one, the entire 13 episode series was released at once. How lovely for someone like me, who has joined the ranks of those who wait for a series to be vetted before diving in like a starving child. Sure, it's a little cowardly, I admit, but it makes it oh so satisfying to not have to wait week to week for the story to unfold.

The release format also effects the structure of the program. Most weekly shows of this ilk have to spend a minute or two recapping the previous week just in case someone comes in late to the series. That is a relic of the past, though, especially for those of us used to sitting down and gorging on a show. Instead, while the program runs at 48 minutes per episode, those two minutes are better used to further the story. A welcome improvement. I suspect that in future, when this model has been proven, programs like this will eschew even requiring viewers to watch separate titles for each episode. In fact, being locked into a repeating format where every episode is the same length starts to seem ridiculous when people are watching on their own schedule anyway. Intermissions will certainly be a good idea when your program is in excess of 10 hours. Still, why not have one episode that's only 15 minutes and another that's over two hours, if the story calls for it?

And there I go, talking about the future of TV. I know, you didn't ask.

It's hard to know how Netflix will determine how to justify continuing to produce the program. After all, current subscribers don't pay anything more to see it, there is no advertising (or product placement that I could discern - maybe Apple). One supposes that in time, Netflix could charge a premium for self-produced content, but it will take a while before that appears. That certainly isn't happening with their next production, Hemlock Grove. One thing that can be said; the series isn't over. Can you say cliffhanger?

What is clear is that broadcast networks and discs really are no longer necessary, at least as long as broadband internet is available. Although weirdly, Netflix will be selling the program on DVD and Blu-ray in June. Perhaps this marks the end of appointment TV.

Will this usher in a new era of binge viewing programs? How can you usher something in that's already here?

House of Cards: The Complete First Season (US)
Free to Netflix Subscribers

7.5 out of 10 congressional votes (for making me question liking a manipulative prig)

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