House of Cards
Unless you've been keeping your head under a rock, you'll know that a week or so ago, the streaming video service Netflix launched one of its first original series, with an adaptation of the 1990s BBC series House of Cards. It made all thirteen episodes available to watch in one go, and in the process has created an enormous amount of buzz.
Perhaps as much as the actual quality of the programme, an awful lot has been written about whether the "all available now" way that all thirteen episodes of the series were released on 1 February symbolises the future of television.
And now I'm going to add to those many words.
It first needs to be said that I'm not at all sure that this is the future of television.
While it allows those with the time to gorge themselves over a limited period, to watch in one go, I suspect few us of really have that time available. That said, I've just done almost that having watched a single episode the previous weekend, and the remaining twelve this past weekend.
While we live in a boxset age that has allowed us to watch series like this at our own pace for quite some time now - the Guardian has a regular "Your next boxset" feature - I'm not at all sure it's right for everything or indeed everyone. Indeed while I scampered through House of Cards, there are other boxsets lying dormant near my television as testament to the fact that we can't always do that kind of viewing.
But what House of Cards is clearly lacking is the proverbial water-cooler moment. I can't go into work tomorrow and tell everyone how much I liked the first episode and that they should catch up and watch it so we can discuss it.
No instead, I can go into work tomorrow and tell everyone that I loved the whole thing and that they should watch it. Then there'll be concerns from friends and colleagues that I'm going to spoil the series in some way. Of course some of them will have seen the BBC originals in this instance, but they still don't want to know plot spoilers. I might never get to sit down and talk about it with others.
Yet if we take another imported serial drama like this - Homeland - I could regularly have those discussions. Certainly PVRs and services like iPlayer and 4OD mean that not everyone has seen the latest episode. But I can usually find a kindred spirit to chat through my thoughts.
However there is, in many respects, already a problem here. Series like Dexter and Breaking Bad are terribly popular on DVD or from online streaming services like Netflix. But that means you need to be careful about what you say before you open up a discussion. Who knows where anyone else is up to? Which season are they on? It actually becomes pretty frustrating.
La la la la la la laaaa. I don't want to know what happens in season 3 - I've not caught up with that yet!
When determining whether or not this kind of release structure truly is "the future of television," you have to ask yourself "is it repeatable?" If every series came out in this manner you simply couldn't cope. I suspect that we'd actually end up watching a lot less drama rather than what we currently get through. Leaving aside soaps, drama series would take on the guise of films. Each Friday a handful of films are released at the cinema and the average adult sees between zero and one of them.
House of Cards can cope with this because it's a singular event. This is a special case. We're not used to this sort of thing. When you buy or rent a DVD boxset of a TV series currently, you already know that you're "behind" and that others have seen it when it first aired on television.
Another thing you begin to discover, if you do plough through a full series like this in one go, watching in HD, is whether you have quite as much internet bandwidth on your current plan with your ISP as perhaps you thought. I've never run my ISP's limit close. Checking now, I'm perhaps a little closer than I'd like. I certainly won't be watching another thirteen part series next weekend. But perhaps that means that it's time for me to change ISP.
It's got to be said that Netflix has also been very lucky. I'm sure that their executives are awfully skillful and knew a good series when it was presented to them. But they've landed a particularly wonderful series in House of Cards. You only have to look at US TV to find it littered with failures. Yes, the cable channels do better. They don't cancel series mid-season and stop airing them. And it seems that they're more likely to renew series than not. But it doesn't always happen, and if this had been a terrible series, the model wouldn't have worked any better. William Goldman's "Nobody knows anything" quote about Hollywood still stands.
In fact, Netflix does have other series exclusively. They're the only place in the UK to catch the latest series of Breaking Bad (UK TV stations having somehow completely missed out on this), and they've also got Borgias. No. Not The Borgias with Jeremy Irons, but Borgias with that guy who was the police chief in The Wire (and bizarrely, with the same East Coast accent which you must admit is strange in a fifteenth century Pope). I've not watched more than about twenty minutes of one episode, and then it's only because of the Homicide: Life on the Streets heritage of some of the producers. But the fact you've probably not heard of this quite expensive and ill-timed series, suggests that it's not all that great. It's a Netflix exclusive in the US and UK - although it does air on regular television in Europe.
Obviously we have Arrested Development to come, and interestingly this is a series that will have a different structure to regular sitcoms - different episodes concentrating on different characters. Whether that was the writers' choice or because the cast is doing lots of other things these days, and it was a scheduling problem that couldn't otherwise be avoided, is not altogether clear.
But it does raise the interesting spectre of watching series in any order. A bit like that old Guardian ad that let you see the same thing from different viewpoints to get the full picture, a series could be made where the episodes could be shuffled into any order and still make sense. There have been books and radio dramas that have used this device in the past.
Indeed online streaming also allow for the notion of the TV equivalent of a Fighting Fantasy book where viewers choose how a story progresses. I suspect that production costs might keep something like that in check for a while, although I note a recent US airing of Hawaii 5-O did allow viewers to choose the murderer via a Twitter vote.
Anyway, let's get back to this new version of House of Cards.
Beautifully produced, and immaculately acted, it's a first-class piece of television, making it well worth a £5.99 punt for a month's subscription. Indeed Netflix gives you a free month, so there's little to lose!
Kevin Spacey is a superb choice as the devious and cunning Francis "Frank" Underwood. He's a southern Democratic congressman who's the House Majority Whip. But he has bigger ideas on his career horizon, and that's the story the series portrays.
As in the original BBC series, Underwood regularly turns and speaks to the camera to let us in on his thinking and why what he's about to do is really important.
And I found the scene in the opening episode where Underwood shows us his favourite bit of hidden Washington, a ribs joint where Underwood is quite happy eating "half a rack" for breakfast, really powerful, attempting to portray just what kind of man he is.
Robin Wright plays his wife Claire, who runs a charity - not that an enormous amount of her time seems to be spent particularly "charitably." She has a very interesting relationship with her husband. They're both in this together, even though we're not entirely sure what "it" is.
It's good to see Wright back on the screen - I can't remember seeing her in anything for years, although IMDB suggests she hasn't been sitting too still in the recent past. Her character is very interesting, although I still felt we were left with a lot of questions about her at the end of thirteen episodes.
The other key character is Kate Mara's Zoe Barnes. She's a young reporter on the Washington Herald (in this series, while TV networks are real; newspapers aren't) who becomes confidant - and more - to Underwood. He's using her to place the stories he wants in the media, when he wants them. She starts off somewhat naively, although later the mist does seem to begin to clear from her eyes. Mara plays her as quite a docile character, but one who's not happy to do things the old way. And there's definitely a tough streak running through her. She might be uncertain exactly where her own career trajectory is taking her, but she's going to work to get there.
Partway through the series, the media action shifts from the old-world newspapers to the exciting new digital world of Slugline - a seeming clone of Politico. Whether people really do attempt to try to file copy in these places, working from a beanbag and without a desk, I don't know. I've seen pictures of the inside of Google and know that they have these rooms. But don't they have regular desks and chairs too? I do know that these make typing an awful lot easier!
Whether the old newspaper world is quite dead yet is unclear. A conversation between the editor and the paper's owner about declining circulations suggests that perhaps it is as far as this series is concerned.
There are plenty of other characters, but perhaps the most important is Michael Kelly as Doug Stamper, Underwood's right hand man, and one of the few people who are aware of the over-arching plan. Quite how dark and dirty he'll get is never clear. It's a while since I watched the original series, but at times I thought he'd behave worse than he actually does. And his character's life isn't really drawn out. He's seems on call 24/7 to do Underwood's bidding, no matter how unpleasant. But for what ends? He has no obvious personal life. Perhaps that's for season 2?
Although the series has David Fincher's name all over it, he only directs the first couple of episodes. The rest are left in some very safe tried and tested TV hands, as well as a couple of names more familiar from the feature film world like Joel Schumacher and James Foley. As someone said to me, this doesn't have any of Fincher's tricksy trademarks. But then this is TV, and even with a budget as large as this had, you have to shoot an hour of footage a lot more quickly than you do on the average feature. It's also worth noting that the actual length of episodes seems to vary a bit, between 45 minutes and an hour. So always longer than the average network TV drama which has to include commercials.
There is no doubt that proper resource was put into the production. At no point did it look like budgetary constraints were preventing something from being on-screen.
For the most part, the series moved along at quite a nice pace, although I'm sure that the requirement for there to be 13 episodes came from commercial demands rather than artistic purposes. And of course, given the volume of episodes, it's not a single writer who gets to be responsible for all of them.
The one episode that felt surplus to requirements was the one where Underwood heads down to his alma mater and to meet up with his old buddies from college. I think that we're supposed to come away having seen his character humanised. But I'm not sure it really moved the story forward or was necessary. Arguably the "B" story taking place in Pennsylvania was more important, but I'd argue that viewers who skipped that entire episode would be barely away that they'd missed one (Incidentally, you get no "previously on House of Cards..." type summaries at the start of episodes).
I notice that Michael Dobbs (on whose original novel the UK series was based) and Andrew Davies (who adapted that novel) are listed as Executive Producers. I assume that just means that they got a paycheck rather than being particularly involved in the production. From the credits it would appear to be Beau Willimon who was the driving force behind this adaptation. He's someone with no real previous screen credits. He wrote the original play that George Clooney took on to become the film the Ides of March last year, but that's about it. I think it's fair to say that he has a home run on his hands with this series though!
The series ends decently, and everything is setup for the already-commissioned second series. However, I do hope that there aren't too many more seasons after that, if at all. The original BBC series ran for three mini-series. And to be honest, I felt that it was one too many as the Francis Urquhart character became ever more a pantomime villain as the series progressed.
So in fact, I'd be very happy with a two-and-out approach. It's one of the problems of US TV that the "business" part of the word "showbusiness" can take over a little too much, and it becomes about turning out "product." In any case, I suspect it'll all depend on what kind of deal Kevin Spacey has been signed up for.
It'll also be interesting to see where else this series appears. While it's very much a Netflix original series, they still only have a first-run licence for it. I'd be amazed if it didn't show up on some kind of regular broadcast channel in due course. And certainly there'll be DVDs at some stage. I suspect that Netflix's contractual agreements will prevent anyone from making any kind of announcements while Netflix is marketing the hell out of this series.
After all, they want to keep new subscribers like me on board beyond my free first month. And if I knew it was coming soon on DVD, perhaps I wouldn't have subscribed (although, as I say, at £5.99, if you can set aside the time in a calendar month, it's an absolute steal).