Playing Their 'Cards' Right

My recovery from a vicious cold last weekend was helped greatly by bingeing on season 4 of “House of Cards.” Throughout, I was reminded why it is the perfect Netflix original, and so synonymous with that brand.

“House of Cards” is so elegantly designed as a binge-worthy escape. It’s the video storytelling equivalent of the stylishly trashy novel you buy in the airport Hudson News before a six-hour flight. It’s adroitly written and plotted enough to keep you turning pages or flipping screens, but not so intellectually and emotionally taxing that when you drift off to sleep you might have nightmares. I mean, I don’t want to binge on “The Wire,” “Oz” or “The Walking Dead” before bedtime.

Overflowing with nods to the lifestyles of Washington elites, “House of Cards” is fertile ground for product placement in the so-called commercial-free digital field of Netflix. In past seasons, we’ve seen every item from Sony Playstation, the video-game player of choice of Kevin Spacey’s baroque evil political mastermind Frances Underwood, to Canon photo gear, the brand of choice for his Lady Macbeth wife, played with chilly brilliance by Robin Wright.



This season Dunkin' Donuts gets a return engagement, and Samsung TVs and Apple computers abound. The Verge reported that Chinese OnePlus One paid $300,000 to put its culty devices in the hands of various D.C. types. Still, that wasn’t enough stacks to get one into Claire Underwood’s elegant fingers. The fictional First Lady favors the iPhone.

It’s near-impossible to speak of “House of Cards,” and elegant, presumably long fingers, and not evoke the specter of Donald J. Trump. Much of the fun of watching Spacey/Underwood’s murderously mad Machiavellian path to the White House in the series’ first three seasons was how it seemed so garishly over-the-top. There was no noble “West Wing” high-minded speechifying in Frank Underwood’s Congress or White House.

“House of Cards” executive producer Beau Willimon still goes for a hyperbolic Washington. But is this season (spoiler alert) —with a story arc having the First Lady, who has never held elected office, nominated at an open convention as her husband’s running mate for a fictional Underwood & Underwood ticket—really dealing in exaggeration? Is it any more unlikely than when a former First Lady will likely be the Democratic nominee, running against a real-estate mogul who has never held elective office, after he survives what is likely to be an open Republican convention?

A recent essay in The Guardian went so far as to say Trump’s candidacy has made the Netflix series “obsolete,” noting that the fictional President Underwood’s need to put a politically correct spin on his bad behavior for voters is the antithesis of The Donald and his minions reveling in profane, misogynistic, arm-grabbing political incorrectness. I see the point, yet there’s something quite telling in how “House of Cards” relates to the current state of political marketing affairs in this country.

After being underdogs throughout the season, Underwood & Underwood's chance to win the White House increase significantly -- after Claire gives a speech saying that their unconventional marriage and presidential partnership is to be celebrated for its pure audacity and unadulterated “ends justify the means” ethos of winning regardless of cost.

In “House of Cards,” purloined data on the populace, gathered by the NSA and analyzed by the Underwoods’ research guru, shows the First Lady has hit a major chord. Voters are turned on by the beyond-boundaries power glow exuded by the ultimate power couple. With the Underwoods, it’s all about them, as it is with The Donald. Regardless of the odd, Teflon-topped persona that has lured in the disenfranchised, it’s still All About Him. Rule the way you want to rule and the masses will follow, convention (Republican or otherwise) be damned.

A major plot point this season about how the Underwoods hyper-target voters to boost their White House ambitions is one more reason “House of Cards” is so the über-Neflix original. Isn’t big data Netflix’s not-so-secret weapon, used to expertly market product, and tailor and target our tastes? Isn’t that how Netflix has upended the industry and made the rest of the media landscape seem like a house of cards?

I wonder what would happen if you saw a photograph comparing the hands of Donald Trump to the hands of Frank Underwood. Could you tell which was which? Is that a Trump Steak I see President Underwood slicing into, and is he washing it down with a Trump Vineyards Cabernet? If not, why not?

Why can’t we live in a universe where a Donald Trump presidency is just as much a fiction? Because if it actually happens (spoiler alert!), it’ll be as frightening as bingeing on “Oz” before bedtime.

2 comments about "Playing Their 'Cards' Right".
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  1. Mark Van Patten from Retired, March 30, 2016 at 3:14 p.m.

    Bingeing is great - except for having to watch the SAME credits roll between episodes. Netflix needs to flex their muscles and insist that credits either 1. be entertaining (ala outtakes) or 2. be shown before first episode 3 be a "special feature." Who pays any attention them anyway? 

  2. Robert McEvily from MediaPost, March 30, 2016 at 5:19 p.m.

    I'm a big fan of credits. (And theme music.) I like learning the names of the actors who aren't big stars. I'll take "supporting actors" for 100, Alex! Who is Christian Serratos? (Rosita on The Walking Dead.) Who is Stephan Dillane? (Stannis Baratheon on Game of Thrones.) Long live credits!

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