Is it too early to talk about “House of Cards” -- or is it already way too late? As all the world knows, Netflix unleashed all 13 season-one episodes simultaneously rather than doling them out weekly like a regular TV series, so we have no idea how many viewers have finished it already, how many are partway through, or how many haven’t even started watching yet.
With regular TV series, we know that 95% of everyone who’s going to watch a show (live and DVR combined) will do so in the first seven days of airing, but there are no behavioral metrics yet on how viewers will consume a television show that’s released as a complete package. (And we need to come up with a new term for this thing: can we still refer to online video streamed on a myriad of devices as a “TV show”?)
It may turn out that “House of Cards” is the beginning of the full novelization of television. Most of the great 19th century novels were published serially in literary magazines and only later put between the covers of a completed book, just as a season’s worth of “Breaking Bad” is now collected in a DVD box set for later viewing. But “House of Cards” shows that it’s possible to skip the serialization step altogether and offer viewers a fully formed work of art.
The question is whether “House of Cards” becomes a game-changer or just an interesting one-off experiment. Amazon, YouTube and other Internet-based content companies are also planning to produce and stream television series, so this could become a trend, but my guess is that these online-only shows will not kill traditional television.
Netflix has not announced how many people have watched the show, and it’s been my experience that when a network doesn’t disclose its viewership it’s usually disappointed in the numbers. This might not be the case with “House of Cards,” but there’s no question that the buzz about the series has ground to a halt. When a series appears weekly, people discuss it at the water cooler, live tweet about it, recap it online and generally keep it part of the ongoing conversation. This creates a mutually reinforcing audience that keeps people watching. But if no one’s talking about it, what’s the rush to watch it?
It would be a shame if “House of Cards” doesn’t get the audience it deserves, because it’s a remarkable piece of work. So much of the discussion has focused on the delivery strategy that the quality of the show itself has sometimes been overlooked.
“House of Cards” is a good antidote to anyone coming off the sugar high of “Downton Abbey.” Both shows are stylish, well-acted peeks into the world of power and status, but “Downton” is a feel-good soap opera while “House” is a serious drama, albeit one with melodramatic overtones.
Set in contemporary Washington, with its special-interest groups, idealists, deal-makers, ambitious reporters, and vice-prone politicians, “House of Cards” has blatant echoes of “Macbeth,” “Richard III” and “Othello.” The power-lusting House Majority Whip Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, plots his revenge with Iago-like intensity after being passed over for the position of Secretary of State. Driven on by his equally calculating wife (portrayed by an icy and remote Robin Wright), Underwood plays political chess while his colleagues play checkers, manipulating events and pulling all the levels of power to achieve his goals.
Political geniuses like Frank Underwood are not common -- but as readers of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson know, they do pop up from time to time. Nothing that Underwood achieves on Capitol Hill is as surprising as what LBJ managed in the U.S. Senate, where he became Majority Leader after just four years in office and forced through the first Civil Rights bill of the modern era (see Caro’s “Master of the Senate” for the jaw-dropping details.)
Yet, unfortunately for the verisimilitude of the show, the Washington depicted in “House of Cards” no longer exists. In “House of Cards,” the members of Congress are old-fashioned politicians who actually make deals and balance conflicting special interests. Something like that may have been still true in the Reagan and Clinton years but Washington today is filled with ideological true believers who won’t be bought off with perks and petty compromises. In one preposterous howler, Underwood plots to depose the Speaker of the House by aligning the Black Caucus in a power-sharing arrangement with the GOP. Members on both sides of the aisle will do a lot to get committee chairs, but no modern Congressperson, would make an ideological compromise like that.
Although “House of Cards” has an outdated view of how Washington operates, even its most feverish and surreal scenes feels more revealing of the human condition than other Washington-based series like “The West Wing,” “Veep,” and (God forbid) “1600 Avenue.” There will always be people who’ll do almost anything for power, prestige and status and “House of Cards” gets inside their heads.
I can’t wait for season two. The title of the series suggests that Underwood is too clever by half and that his plots will eventually collapse like a house of cards. I just wish I knew someone I could talk to about this without “spoiling” it for him.