Netlix's House of Cards is good TV, and possibly the future of distribution

This week’s column focuses on a single show, in part because it’s new, but also—as a Netflix exclusive—because it may herald he future of TV distribution.

House of Cards

★★★★

Netflix, 13 episodes now streaming

When discussing House of Cards, Netflix’s new original drama series that premiered exclusively on Netflix on February 1, there are really two things that you’re discussing. The first is House of Cards, a new political drama starring Kevin Spacey and directed and executive produced by David Fincher. A show about a ruthless member of the House of Representatives, Francis “Frank” Underwood, played by Spacey, the decisions he’s willing to make to get power, and the people he hurts and helps along the way.

The second is House of Cards as the future of television distribution. Cards isn’t the first drama to premiere on the Internet. Hulu had several of those over the last few years (though some were admittedly British and Canadian imports Hulu decided to “debut” online in the U.S., and smaller scale Web series have been premiering online for a decade. The show is Netflix’s announcement that Internet-exclusive shows are ready to take on traditional television in terms of quality and scale.

As a standard-bearer for quality shows debuting online Cards proves Netflix is ready to compete with the big dogs. Fincher makes the show look better than most feature films (he only directs the first two episodes but his visual style permeates all 13) and Spacey gives the kind of scenery chewing lead performance that countless cable dramas have been built on for the last decade.

Still, while Cards proves the potential for straight-to-the-Web shows to disrupt traditional television models, it isn’t particularly revolutionary itself. The 13-episode ”season” is fairly common for the kind of prestige cable dramas it’s emulating. Each of those episodes is about the 50 minute length of a Showtime or HBO drama, and sticks with traditional serialized episodic storytelling.

The only thing unusual in terms of the House of Cards format is Netflix’s choice to release the first 13 episodes online at once. That seems like a deliberate and probably wise choice on the part of Netflix, proving that it can copy traditional television models before breaking from them too heavily. (Also interesting: Netflix has made the first episode free to non-subscribers for the month of February.)

The problem is that that leaves House of Cards in an awkward middle ground. The show has an obvious interest in being seen as a traditional prestige drama about corruption morally questionable characters in the style of The Sopranos, but it isn’t really daring enough to reach those heights.

Unfortunately for House of Cards if it’s not TV it’s not quite HBO either.

Most outlets are choosing to review House of Cards episodically, concentrating on only the show’s first few episodes so far. That’s been a boon to Cards, as its opening three hours are undoubtedly the strongest run (episode 8, which steps back from the machinations in Washington, has a strong claim for the show’s best hour) highlighting the series’ strengths before its weaknesses become apparent.

Over its first 13 episodes (Netflix is promising another 13 at some point in the future so the “watch it all when you want” promise is at least a little misleading here) House of Cards is grounded by fine performances and interesting characters interacting in an increasingly unrealistic universe. It wants to be a shocking look at how Washington really works, but it takes place in a world where a lifelong education reformer can be manipulated into giving up on his cause with a few choice words and a leaked story. That development comes in the early going by the way. By episode 10 Underwood is plotting at least his third masterstroke that’s completely unprecedented in U.S. political history all as mere stepping stones to his larger goal.

That doesn’t mean the show is a disaster to watch. A colleague described the show to me as Burn Notice meets West Wing and that’s as apt a description of what the series does well as I can imagine. Like USA’s lighthearted spy show Burn Notice, Cards is dependent on its lead’s ability to manipulate others to a superhuman degree. If you think too hard about the plans of Spacey’s Congressman Underwood, the whole thing falls apart. But, if you’re willing to go along for the ride, then watching Underwood outflank the entire U.S. government with relative ease can be a lot of fun.

The show has to be a drama on some level, as Underwood’s actions are too despicable for even the darkest of dark comedies, but Cards works best when it acts as a kind of nighttime soap about political wheeling and dealing. I’m willing to forgive the show a lot of its unrealistic plot turns just to see how its various characters react to the new state of affairs.

The problem is that the show seems to want us to take Underwood’s journey deathly seriously, which turns the show into a tale of political corruption that’s been told countless times and told better, not least by the original British House of Cards miniseries.

Cards seems content with relatively minor updates to the same old tale. Kate Mara’s reporter Zoe may be talking about blogs and online reporting but, outside of a few references to her tweeting a new story, her actual plot-line and reporting style would be comfortable in any 1970s political drama.

If you go into House of Cards to see if Netflix can put on a competent show, then you’ll likely be entertained. If you’re looking for the next evolution of serial drama, however, you might need to wait a little longer.

Arrested Development returns to TV in May as a Netflix exclusive as well.

Luckily, there’s more unusual experiments coming down the pike soon from Netflix. A new season of Arrested Development, expected to premiere in May, is planning to break from format pretty heavily. According to series creator Michael Hurwitz, each episode will concentrate on a specific character and tell one small part of a larger narrative rather than the overlapping stories of the original series. These episodes will only form a cohesive whole once you’ve watched the entire season.

That’s the kind of format you can only get away with on the Internet and the kind of break from convention that House of Cards would be wise to make when it returns with its second batch of 13 episodes.

What’s New

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  • Toddlers and Tiaras (TLC) Season 4: Netflix

Expiring Soon

  • 30 Days (FX) Seasons 1–3: Netflix (2/15)
  • Flash Forward (ABC) Season 1: Netflix (2/15)
  • Reaper (WB) Seasons 1–2: Netflix (2/15)

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