Laying ‘House of Cards’ on the table

Split/Screen
Netflix now not only streams your favorite TV shows, it makes its own TV. DEAL WID IT.
Netflix now not only streams your favorite TV shows, it makes its own TV. DEAL WID IT. // Creative Commons

SN: We ended our discussion of finales with speculation about where television and its audience will go from here. Several beloved shows are having their swan songs, and we feared the networks were entering a (very) fallow period.

And then, as if the heavens heard us and felt compelled to answer, Netflix released “House of Cards.” With a $100 million budget, a cast of bona fide movie stars and David Fincher directing, Netflix’s first original program immediately established itself as “serious” television — that is, when it wasn’t being called a very long feature film by its writer-showrunner, Beau Willimon. Even more unorthodox, Netflix released all 13 episodes of the first season at once, catering to the large binge-watching demographic among its subscribers.

Given all this, do we consider “House of Cards” television? Does its model herald the end of television as we know it? And does it even work as entertainment?

GC: I’m going to say it since Sophia didn’t: spoiler alert. I doubt anyone seeking out this column is worried we’re going to ruin much, but that’s the etiquette regardless.

And yes, it works, with the exception of one plainly out-of-step episode that threatened to derail my suite’s whole experience of the show (in brief: Spacey sings). It’s not just that the show can be watched all at once; it should be, because the story is tailored that way to great effect. Nothing felt compressed or overlong, nothing dawdled or outpaced itself. I’m impressed as all that Fincher & Co. struck that balance on the first outing.

And it’s so fun; good God is it fun to watch Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) smear barbecue sauce on a photo of the president. He plots, he connives and he narrates it all in a luscious sweet-tea-and-pecan-pie Southern accent. There’s tragedy, comedy and really very disturbing sexual encounters between Kate Mara and Spacey (on Father’s Day!). Robin Wright does a great Lady Macbeth as Underwood’s equally cool and calculating wife; “I love that woman,” Underwood drawls, “I love her more than a shark loves blood.”

SN: “House of Cards” didn’t hold up as well for me as it did for you. The original British series managed to ell in four episodes what this show stretched over 13, which to me begs the question, why adhere to the 13-episode structure? (Other than the fact that the premium channels do it, that is.)

Which is my way of getting at my biggest criticism: the pacing. The traditional television show, delivering a single story installment each week, has to construct each episode to sustain attention from week to week. “House of Cards” doesn’t have that handicap, and as a result, its episodes are not as self-contained, as tightly plotted. Netflix assumed, probably rightly, that the habits of marathoners meant that they would continue watching out of pure inertia. Would their show have stood the test of a normal broadcast schedule, stretched over the course of months? Perhaps this distribution model means that in the future, showrunners will be sheltered from the vagaries of ratings systems and fickle audiences. But without the constraints of the form, “House of Cards” loses its shape.

When you were trying to get me to watch the show, you called it “power porn,” and I can see that: A lot of its pleasures are concentrated in moments in which characters demonstrate their influence over one another. “House of Cards” lays itself bare when, after a particularly joyless tryst, Underwood quotes Wilde at Barnes: “Everything is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.”

That monomaniacal interest in power dynamics sometimes torques the plot beyond enjoyableness, resulting in drawn-out sequences that are supposed to be charged with tension but end up seeming wooden and pointless. Why, for instance, does Barnes try on Claire Underwood’s dress? It’s an image intended to titillate us in one way or another, but it seems totally without motivation. The show loses its drive. That slick gray wash that Fincher does so well begins to look a bit wan.

GC: Isn’t unclear and awful kind of the show’s intentional mode though? I think most of the episodes leave ambiguous, at least temporarily and not unknowingly, how the means in play connect with the ends down the road; what’s engrossing is that the means are so sadistically dirty. And the puzzles don’t make sense until the last piece is about to be slotted in, but then, oh the beauty of it all! The double discovery that Congressman Russo is designed to implode during the gubernatorial campaign so that the vice presidency will open up, and we realize that Spacey is willing to kill to tidy up the shattered would-be-governor: priceless.

That doesn’t push the right buttons for you?

SN: I hate to do that thing that all TV snobs do, but I’m going to do it: I’m invoking “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad” and all those other grim feel-bad shows that force you into catharsis by dangling you over the deepening pit of your own despair. Those are shows that know how to set up the final piece of the puzzle. Those are shows that have energy, even in ambiguity.

GC: Well, I haven’t watched either of those shows because people talk about them too much. But if they’ve spoiled you for this great tar-monsters-groping-each-other-in-the-cesspool-of-government drama, then I’m deeply sorry. Because I love it.

I love it more than a shark loves blood.

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