The Netflix Model – House of Cards Season 1 in Review

Disclaimer: I clearly mark which sections contain spoilers but, just for peace of mind, Chapter 3 contains massive spoilers for season 1 of House of Cards. Chapter 4 includes some vague character spoilers but nothing too severe. The rest is spoiler-free. Enjoy.

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Introduction

It seems like every other piece I write for this blog includes something about the plunge Netflix has taken into original programming. It’s something that really fascinates me. I believe we are standing at the precipice of a revolution in the television industry and Netflix is preparing to give us a much needed nudge.

The reason I started this blog was to voice my excitement for Netflix as an original content provider. I made bold statements that were fueled by an intense interest and high hopes. But I had no idea if Netflix’s content was going to be up to snuff. I had my ideas but, ultimately, they were worthless without premium content deserving of my $7.99 every month.

I finally burned through Netflix’s highly acclaimed and extremely hyped flagship series House of Cards over the course of a handful of days. This happened a couple weeks ago. Now that I’ve finally found the time to stop obsessing over what I watched, I can share it with you.

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Chapter 1 – Fincher and the Freedom of Netflix

House of Cards is about Congressman Francis Underwood. He’s the House Majority Whip and, after being passed up for the position of Secretary of State by the new President he helped get elected, he embarks on a personal vendetta, using power and influence to get what he feels he deserves.

On the surface, this is a very interesting premise. But as you dig deeper into the web of deceit at the hands of Frank, you realize what the show is truly about. It’s an amoral antihero character study filled to the brim with enough political intrigue and shady dealings to leave you clamoring for more.

David Fincher directed the first two episodes of the series and is also an executive producer. If you’re a fan of his movies, you know his distinct style. That style is in full force in House of Cards. The directors of the remaining episodes follow his lead and the end result is a filmic style that is truly a perfect match for the pristine writing.

The production style of the show is fascinating in and of itself. Fincher took five directors, gave them two episodes each and twenty days to shoot them in. From there, the directors had nearly total control of their work. The director of an episode even had control of casting for any characters that make a first appearance in their episode.

This groundbreaking form of collaboration has never been seen before in television and is simply impossible in many cases. If you want to read a more in depth analysis of the show’s filmmaking style, I highly recommend this article on the DGA website. It’s eye-opening and includes this fantastic quote:

“The world of 7:30 on Tuesday nights, that’s dead. A stake has been driven through its heart, its head has been cut off, and its mouth has been stuffed with garlic. The captive audience is gone. If you give people this opportunity to mainline all in one day, there’s reason to believe they will do it.” – David Fincher

Netflix famously released the entire first season on February 1st. It broke the viewers free of the cage of scheduled programming and, I must say, I love it. The How I Met Your Mother Facebook disaster earlier this week is a good indicator that the days of being shackled by scheduled programming are dead. And Netflix is piling the last bits of dirt on the grave.

I’ve talked about this before but, as a brief review, Nielsen is the bane of the television fan’s existence. If you love a show and want it to survive but you and your friends don’t have a Nielsen box, you don’t matter. Luckily, Netflix doesn’t operate with Nielsen ratings. They utilize viewing data to analyze precisely what is keeping the viewers streaming and what’s stopping them in their tracks. With this, Netflix could completely rebrand network notes as a thing of actual value as opposed to one jackass opinion.

Television is rapidly becoming a relative term. I watched three of the thirteen episodes of House of Cards on my phone while I was on the treadmill at the gym. The fact that those viewings helped contribute to the longevity of the series simply blows my mind.

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Chapter 2 – Ferris Bueller goes to Congress

I was really hesitant about one thing going into the series. Kevin Spacey breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly throughout the show. I knew going in that it would be an uphill battle getting me on board with this particular narrative style. I was under the impression that it would be gimmicky and detract from the overall drama of the series. My worst case scenario involved it being a dressed up narration that the writers would use as a crutch to tell the audience how the main character feels. (I’m looking at you, Dexter.)

I was wrong on all counts!

Frank breaking the fourth wall completely enhances the experience. It’s not a crutch by any means. In fact, these short soliloquies match the dark tone of the plot perfectly and give the show an almost Shakespearean feel. The audience isn’t being told what Frank’s schemes are; we’re watching him revel in his role as puppet master.

One of the things that really piqued my interest in House of Cards was the freedom that a lack of scheduling afforded the production. Since Netflix has the keys to the shackles of television’s oppressive scheduling blocks, the power to decide how you consume their content falls on your shoulders.

The writing in the show reflects that freedom. According to one of show runner Beau Willimon‘s weekly Twitter Q&A’s, every episode of the show has to be at most an hour long for the sake of international broadcasts. Aside from that, the writers can write the show without worrying too much about time constraints. Each episode ranges in runtime from 46 minutes to 53 minutes.

The varying runtime directly reflects the fluidity of the writing. Thanks to the Netflix Model, House of Cards is completely free of superfluous plots, filler episodes or half-baked storylines. As a result, this is one of the most impressive first seasons of a series I’ve ever seen. With Breaking Bad coming to an end in the fall, House of Cards stands a shockingly good chance of stealing the title of “best show on television” away from Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones.

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My one issue with the show, however, is the product placement. There are a few scenes where Frank is unwinding by playing video games. He’s playing on a Playstation 3, specifically. These scenes didn’t bother me. Kevin Spacey blindly button mashing was a small annoyance but overall it’s a funny thing to see a Congressman play video games.

However, there was one scene where the product placement manifested itself into the script and that’s where my one complaint with the show comes in. There’s a scene where Frank visits a fellow Congressman, sees a PS Vita and comments on it by name. He remarks that he’s been thinking about getting a Vita for the car. It’s a nearly cringe inducing shame considering it’s the only real blemish in 13 incredibly polished scripts.

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Chapter 3 – Not an Archetypical Antihero (SPOILERS AHEAD)…

* – In this section I talk about the specific content of the show! Do not read this section if you haven’t watched House of Cards yet. Please return after you have watched it, though… *

Francis Underwood, Vic Mackey, Walter White and Nucky Thompson walk into a bar…okay, so I don’t have a punchline for that joke. It’s only because I’m too distracted salivating at the thought of how these characters would interact with each other.

The pilot episode of House of Cards begins by disobeying a basic rule of screenwriting. “Save the cat” is a rule coined by the late Blake Snyder. It says that when the audience meets the hero, he should do something heroic (like saving a cat). It’s so the audience has a reason to root for him.

In the first scene of House of Cards, Francis Underwood kills a dog.

The dog belongs to a neighbor and had just been the victim of a hit and run. Frank explains to us that sometimes it’s left to him to do the dirty work as he suffocates the injured animal. It’s a fascinating character introduction that speaks volumes about what you’re about to see.

There’s a bitter coldness in the way Frank speaks. He describes killing the dog as if it were a chore. It sets us up with the fact that Frank is an amoral man with a twisted sense of duty that’s guided by his desire for power. Killing the dog hurls us into the gray world of House of Cards’ political intrigue and deception.

At the start of the season, Frank is denied a position as the President-elect’s Secretary of State despite getting him elected. Frank plays along but hatches a plan to undermine those who’ve wronged him. What I love about this is that, even though Spacey talks to us throughout the series, it isn’t clear what Frank’s endgame is until late in the season. Even then, his scheme is spelled out by a pawn in his game so you can’t really trust that that’s his ultimate play.

What amazes me about this show is that its main character is so delightfully diabolical that he just caused me to refer to the President’s chief of staff as a pawn without a second thought.

As the season progresses, however, we see that Frank isn’t the perfect mastermind that he appears to be. One of my favorite moments of the season was a scene in “Chapter 6” that featured Frank fumbling a televised debate. In the episode, Frank underestimates his opponent, a union rep responsible for a teacher’s strike, and gets his ass handed to him. It showed a needed flaw in Frank’s nature. He’s too confident.

Then there’s later in the season, when Frank’s plan to steal the Vice Presidency is in full swing. The President sends him to vet a potential candidate, billionaire Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney). What Frank doesn’t know is that Tusk is a confidant of the President and was the reason Frank was passed up for the position of Secretary of State.

Tusk gives Frank an ultimatum. The Vice Presidency in exchange for a blank check. You can see the wheels turning as Frank works to figure out how he can use Tusk to his advantage. It’s fascinating to watch. What I loved most about it was that Tusk is out of Frank’s control. As much as I enjoy watching Spacey the puppet master, I love seeing the imperfect and improvising Frank more.

With House of Cards, we are treated to a new and clever antihero on par with the best. There’s a huge moment in Chapter 10 that shows us what Frank is truly capable of. He kills Congressman Peter Russo in a car and makes it look like a suicide.

Russo was a fantastically tragic character. His arc was some of the best and most compelling television I’ve seen in recent memory. At the start he’s a mess of a man. After Frank makes a potential career-ending police matter go away for Russo, the troubled congressman finds himself indebted to Underwood.

After Frank convinces Peter to get clean and run for governor of Pennsylvania, he orchestrates a relapse that tarnishes the candidate’s reputation and ends his campaign. It’s a play that’s cruel, ruthless and genius. Frank kills him to tie up loose ends and, I believe, simply because the situation presented itself.

This action raises some interesting questions about the nature of the antihero and what it would take to turn the audience against a protagonist. Peter Russo was an interesting and highly sympathetic character. The murder alone wouldn’t carry quite as much thematic weight with it, though. The really disturbing thing about it was that Frank, though maybe not planning murder from the start, orchestrated things that took this character from a low point, built him up and then knocked him down solely for political gain before ruthlessly killing him. It paints Frank in a fascinatingly sociopathic light.

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Chapter 4 – The King’s Pawns (VAGUE CHARACTER SPOILERS AHEAD…)

* – In this section I talk about some character arcs of the season! It’s nothing too severe, but if you want to be in the dark until you watch it, skip this section. Come back after you watch the show, though…*

Of course, a television series can’t achieve greatness on the back of only one character. (Again, I’m looking at you, Dexter.) So let’s take a look at the series’ supporting characters.

Robin Wright as Claire Underwood

Claire Underwood is Frank’s loving wife and confidant in all things devious. The pair operates without secrets. They are uniform in their power plays, though Frank is the one in control. This causes some friction in the first season, but it doesn’t bound into melodrama at all. The intricacies of their relationship are tangled in a web of common goals and loose morals. It makes for a complex dynamic with two highly talented actors.

Robin Wright is phenomenal. Her performance is reminiscent of Glenn Close’s more dramatic television turns. It doesn’t come across as a rip off or even as an homage, either. It appears strictly as a source of inspiration that transforms Wright’s performance into something all its own.

Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes

Zoe Barnes is a young, up and coming journalist who strikes a deal with Frank to feed stories that influence his big picture scheme.

I’ve been a Kate Mara fan for years. Admittedly, this fandom has been strictly on the level of a movie star crush. I’m ashamed to admit I had no idea she was hiding the acting chops for such a meaty role.

Mara plays the part of Zoe as a young journalist eager to cut her teeth. There are times where she plays it with a slight naiveté, but it’s subdued and serves to show her learning the ropes of her job as opposed to making blunders. Her arc is one of valuable learning experiences but the character is strong and adaptable.

Kevin Spacey is the yardstick by which everyone else’s acting is judged and Kate Mara shines when they share the screen. Their relationship is complex and oftentimes twisted. A lesser actress in the role would have jeopardized the entire series.

Corey Stoll as Peter Russo

I touched briefly on the character of Peter Russo in the previous section, so I’ll save it here. Suffice it to say, Congressman Russo is a fascinating and tragic character that functions as a true pawn with Frank’s heel pressed firmly against his throat.

Corey Stoll gives a very strong performance. As the season progresses, the character experiences the most dramatic changes. Stoll embraces the material and gives zero indication that he is overwhelmed or out of his element. His performance is one of nuance and precision. It’s also a reflection of the writing that the most sympathetic character of the show is a deeply troubled and unpredictable man.

Michael Kelly as Doug Stamper

Doug Stamper is Frank’s right hand man. He does the heavy lifting and is probably the one true ally Frank has. The two have a rapport that gives weight to Frank’s various power plays. He’s just as diabolical as the congressman, but he’s a different side of the coin.

I was floored when I found out Michael Kelly was in this show. He pops up in many things I love. Most notably, his one-episode stint on The Shield in which he plays a serial killer contributed to one of the most psychologically brutal interrogation sequences in a 7-season series rife with diverse interrogations. Here, Michael Kelly gets to stretch his legs. Whether he’s putting pressure on a person to get results or orchestrating a bigger, subtler play, Kelly tackles the role with a perfect mix of danger and a calm demeanor.

Kristen Connolly as Christina Gallagher

Christina Gallagher is Peter Russo’s girlfriend and assistant. She gives the erratic and tragic character of Russo a strong anchor and is integral to his sympathetic nature. It isn’t until later in the season that she becomes more of her own character. The season ends for Christina with the hope of more independent development in season 2. Kristen Connolly does such an impressive job with the character, that I’m very hopeful for more Christina.

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Chapter 5 – Season 2 and the Future of Netflix

When I say Netflix has the potential to change the television industry, I’m not being hyperbolic. They’ve set a new standard with House of Cards. Not just in terms of content, but in terms of delivery. It’s something that HBO, Showtime and Starz should be taking very seriously. If the premium networks aren’t careful, there’s a small chance they could end up like Blockbuster. And I don’t want to see that happen. I love Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones too much.

Netflix showed an unprecedented amount of faith in Beau Willimon and David Fincher when they gave them $100 million for 2 seasons. As of now, Netflix has made that money back in subscription fees. I don’t know if this will become standard practice for the company or if it was simply a gamble to get the ball rolling. In any case, it paid off substantially.

The show has generated some Emmy buzz and rightfully so. I think it will be remarkable and very well earned for Kevin Spacey to at least get the best actor nomination. Thanks to a 2008 rule change, House of Cards is eligible for Emmy consideration. I won’t pretend that Spacey has a shot against Bryan Cranston, however. But the show has plenty of supporting actors worthy of consideration. It’s also insanely well-directed and impeccably well-written. All of the separate pieces of this vast puzzle create a truly compelling premium grade political thriller.

House of Cards is currently shooting its second season. They haven’t announced it but I imagine the season will premiere in the first quarter of 2014. I haven’t watched Hemlock Grove yet, and the new season of Arrested Development is still a week away. But if Netflix can repeat half the quality of House of Cards, they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.

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You can pre-order the first season of House of Cards on DVD and Blu-Ray right now. They will be released on June 11th.

For good measure, here are links to the first seasons of Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones.

And finally, as always, don’t forget to follow me on Twitter and like the blog on Facebook.

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