Tuesday, March 20, 2018
TV and Media

Netflix shakes up TV series viewing with 'House of Cards'

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. That doesn't mean Underwood, a suave Washington insider, is some kind of sociopath. He is a most unusual antihero — even for television — explaining the rules of Washington directly to us viewers while he develops a plan to subtly publicly ruin the president of the United States. Underwood really represents the face of a new TV revolution, a game-changer of a project that just might blow up how you watch television, along with the industry that gives it to you.

House of Cards is a lush, sharply produced drama about a power player in Washington: Spacey's Underwood, his voiced drenched in a tasty Southern drawl. He 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, which is guaranteed two 13-episode seasons and executive produced by David Fincher, the brilliant director behind edgy classics such as Seven. 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 on Friday for its streaming video customers, allowing them to consume as many, or as few, chunks of the series as they choose, when they choose.

In the process, the company that started as a convenient way to rent DVDs will morph into a noisy competitor for Showtime, Comcast, network television and YouTube all at once, for less than half the cost of an HBO subscription alone.

That's because Netflix this year also will debut new episodes of the critical favorite Arrested Development, along with new series from Weeds creator Jenji Kohan and Hostel director Eli Roth.

Like PBS with Sherlock and Downton Abbey, Netflix will 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, acknowledging that the mass release enables binge viewing that Netflix fans love, watching multiple episodes at once.

"It's not how we came up watching TV," said Arrested Development executive producer Mitch Hurwitz during a news conference. "It's not how I looked forward to seeing The Sopranos. But you've got to follow (your) audience. So, I mean, we're just embracing it."

Will it be harder for House of Cards to build enthusiasm when every episode appears at once? And how do you judge a hit when Netflix declines to release viewership data? (Even if they did, since such figures are not independently verifiable, could you trust them?)

Netflix's current model simply follows the audience's desire for more control. It's a future I predicted long ago, anticipating networks would just release episodes of shows to your home's computer servers for viewing.

"We are programming for the On Demand generation," Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said during a different news conference this month. "They will tell us how many episodes they want to watch. They are going to tell us what time to watch them, and they are going to tell us what device they want to watch them on."

There is no better series to lead this charge toward TV revolution than Fincher and Spacey's House of Cards.

Spacey's Underwood pretends 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 often talks to the audience. 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.

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 the House of Cards takedown of a fictional nominee you might wonder.

Netflix's competitors won't stand still, of course. Online retailer Amazon already has announced plans for a series version of the 2009 hit movie Zombieland for its on-demand service.

But 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 by its new series.

Buckle up, TV fans. We're in for a bumpy — if gratifying — ride.


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