Netflix's House of Cards, debuting all 13 episodes today, just might revolutionize the TV industry
It’s a telling sign.
Minutes after meeting Francis Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s smooth-talking Congressman at the heart of Netflix’s new original series House of Cards, we see him killing a dog.
But that doesn’t mean Underwood, the Majority Whip and a suave Washington insider, is some kind of garden variety sociopath. He isn’t even a typical TV anti-hero, explaining the rules of Washington directly to viewers, as if we’re perched invisibly on his shoulder while he develops a plan to subtly, publicly ruin the President of the United States.
What Underwood really represents, is the face of a new TV revolution; a game-changer of a project which just might blow up how you watch television, along with the industry which gives it to you.
House of Cards is a lush, sharply-produced drama about a power player in Washington D.C. – Spacey’s Underwood, his voiced drenched in a tasty Southern drawl hearkening back to the actor’s role on Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil -- who sets about taking down the president he helped elect, when the POTUS passes him over for Secretary of State.
Netflix spent a reported $100-million on the production, teaming with Media Rights Capital to develop the series which is guaranteed two, 13-episode seasons. Considered one of the largest series single-handedly produced and financed by an independent studio, it's executive produced by David Fincher, the brilliant director behind edgy classics such as Seven and the 2011 version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It’s an ace Americanization and modernization of a classic British series from the 1990s, substituting Yankee bravado and sly manipulations for British intrigue.
But what really matters about House of Cards is how viewers will see it and where.
Netflix will unveil all 13 episodes at once today for its streaming video customers, allowing them to consume as many – or as few – chunks of the series as they choose.
In the process, the company which started as a convenient way to rent DVDs will morph into a noisy competitor for Showtime, Comcast, network television and YouTube all at once – offering access to quality original series, movies, old TV shows and specials for less than half the cost of an HBO subscription alone.
That’s because Netflix this year will also debut new episodes of the critical favorite Arrested Development, along with new series from Weeds creator Jenji Kohan and Hostel director Eli Roth. And like PBS with Sherlock and Downton Abbey, Neflix will even stream a British series to American fans after it airs in England, releasing episodes of Office creator Ricky Gervais’ new show Derek.
Even some of the producers have struggled to accept what it means to stream an original show on Netflix. “There are going to be surprises that will be ruined by spoilers, but that would have happened anyway,” said Arrested Development executive producer Mitch Hurwitz during a press conference earlier this month. “So it’s happening maybe on one day for hardcore fans. But the stuff just now exists. It just lives out there.”
The key, said Hurwitz, is enabling the kind of binge viewing Netflix fans love to indulge, watching multiple episodes at once. “It’s not how we came up watching TV,” he added. “It’s not how I looked forward to seeing The Sopranos. But you’ve got to follow (your) audience. You’ve got to stay fresh. You got to keep challenging yourself. So, I mean, we’re just embracing it.”
Some have wondered whether enthusiasm can last for a show when every episode appears at once; the slow build of anticipation for every episode has fueled fan interest in hits diverse as The Walking Dead, Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy.
But other shows, such as Big Bang Theory and Law & Order, saw huge upswings in popularity after near-constant showings of old episodes in syndication led fans to check out the new episodes as well. Netflix’s current model simply follows the audience’s desire for more control than ever over the TV they watch; the modern version of a future I predicted long ago, when networks would just release episodes of shows to your home’s computer servers for viewing at your leisure.
And there is no better series to lead this charge toward TV revolution than Fincher and Spacey’s House of Cards.
The new show follows the English series more closely than fans might imagine, with Spacey’s Underwood pretending to support the president who yanked away the Secretary of State job, while secretly leaking damaging information to a young reporter and positioning people to join his cabinet who will destabilize the administration.
Just like the British version, Spacey’s character talks to the audience, often breaking that “fourth wall” in which performers never acknowledge viewers (Underwood delivers a monologue to the viewer, for example, when he kills the dog; a neighbor’s pet who had been seriously injured by a hit-and-run driver).
He also nabs a key phrase from the English show, telling the reporter “You might think that; I couldn’t possibly comment,” when she guesses a twist he wants her to publish without his fingerprints on it. And his initials are the same as the British lead character: F. U.
They couldn’t have known Obama ally Susan Rice would go down in flames as a possible nominee for Secretary of State in real life, but after watching House of Cards, you will wonder if Underwood’s takedown of a fake nominee wasn’t somehow eerily prescient. And the scenes of their fake inauguration resonate, days after seeing a real one plastered all over television.
If Netflix has its way, concepts like spoilers, episode-ending cliffhangers, even the pace of how each viewer consumes new episodes will be blown up into a thousand directions.
Buckle up, TV fans. We’re in for a bumpy – if gratifying – ride.