Column: Keeley's Corner
A Delicate 'House Of Cards'
Published: Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 20:02
For many years, the phrase “straight-to-video” has carried a near-certain guarantee of mediocrity. Whether it was a Disney cash-in sequel like The Hunchback of Notre Dame II or a generic Steven Segal action movie, any movie bearing the weight of that phrase was likely to be pre-judged for what, in all likelihood, it actually was: a movie too incompetent, cheap, or just plain bad to justify release in theaters.
On Feb. 1, Netflix took a step to change that, perhaps forever.
Surely no Netflix user has been able to escape the company’s barrage of advertisement for its new series House of Cards. For the past few months, the site has been dominated by the imposing, threatening figure of Kevin Spacey sitting on the Lincoln Memorial statue with blood-soaked hands. It’s no wonder that Netflix is pulling out all the stops with its advertising campaign—there’s a lot riding on House of Cards, which is their first foray into original programming.
How much is riding on it? It’s impossible to say exactly, but considering that Netflix is paying the salaries of such Hollywood heavyweights as Spacey, Robin Wright, and David Fincher, it’s safe to guess that their latest venture is costing them quite a bit.
There’s more at stake here than Netflix’s profit margins, though: House of Cards represents a bold bet on the future of the entertainment industry, and how we will consume entertainment in the years to come. Netflix is clearly taking the first steps to set itself up as a competitor to cable outlets like AMC, HBO, and Showtime—in fact, Netflix outbid all three of those networks to purchase the rights. House of Cards is probably the biggest example we’ve yet seen of big entertainment bypassing traditional modes of distribution to reach viewers the way they want to be reached. Suddenly the straight-to-video model (streaming video, in this case) seems less like a dumping ground for mediocrity, and more like a viable way to give viewers the high-quality entertainment they want in the most convenient format possible.
Key to Netflix’s innovation is their decision to release the entire first season at once, dropping all 13 episodes on the same day. It’s a decision that reflects the shifting viewing habits of recent years, as easy access to past TV seasons on Netflix and Hulu have encouraged “binge viewing” of multiple episodes, even whole seasons, at once. Is this the future of TV distribution? Netflix certainly seems to think so—they’ll be following the same model with the much-anticipated fourth season of Arrested Development, coming in May—and so does House of Cards’ main man, David Fincher. According to Fincher, “The world of 7:30 on Tuesday nights, that’s dead. A stake has been driven through its heart, its head has been cut off, and its mouth has been stuffed with garlic. The captive audience is gone. If you give people this opportunity to mainline all in one day, there’s reason to believe they will do it.”
All this is well and good, but I suppose the most important question is: how’s the show? Well, on the basis of only the first two episodes—13 at once was a bit much for me—it’s pretty good. It’s not going to change anyone’s life, and at times the writing feels like a poor man’s Aaron Sorkin, but overall it’s a slick, diabolical portrait of political corruption that is likely to get twistier and more addicting. Spacey delivers his most animated performance in years as the scheming Congressman Francis Underwood, and Fincher’s visual acumen brings a cinematic quality to the series. The moment that sold me on the show comes at the end of the first episode, when Underwood visits his favorite rib joint after successfully derailing a political opponent. The plot’s machinations, Spacey’s droll line deliveries, and Fincher’s camerawork all combine in a terrific sequence that hints at the show’s great promise.
I’ll be interested to follow the show’s arc to see if it does deliver, and if directors like James Foley and Joel Schumacher can match Fincher’s flair in subsequent episodes. I’ll also be watching to see how Netflix makes out with this. If the show is successful, original streaming content may become the new normal for entertainment. And if it flops, all bets are off, and the whole proposition may come tumbling down like a house of cards.