House of Cards
To paraphrase some great philosopher (or some great Woody Allen movie) the only Difference between tragedy and comedy is time and nowdays the difference between film and television is just as small. There was once a line distinguishing the two, differentiating who would act on which, who would direct for which, what storylines would work on which but that line has been fading and falling for a long while now. One of the last distinctions remaining was how we would watch the cumulative creation of all these choices, how we would structure our time in their stories: cinema chose a contained, cohesive setting; TV a series of segregated staccato snippets stretched over several years.
With House of Cards, their second but also their true debut, Netflix have nixed that division too and so now the only difference remaining between the two is time (for the record I watched the series over twelve-days, one episode per and a double today). You all know how and why, there are armies of articles dedicated to that, what I’m more interested in though is what the effect of this inversion is on the content, what this changing of time does to the show and also, whether or not the result of Netflix’s experiment is a tragic one. Some other great speaker once said “Only time will tell,” but while we’re I’m also going to give that a shot.
If you were to look at the this show’s page on IMDb the names of the cast and crew listed would have you believe that it belongs there, on the Internet Movie Database: The first few episodes are directed by David Fincher, who produces the rest alongside the likes of Eric Roth, it stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright
Penn and was shot on a budget not unlike that of many mainstream features set in similar worlds. This isn’t a film though, it’s a television series, or at least that is how the site lists it. Either way the division of mediums is made instantly murky. The one name that probably won’t grab your attention from that list is writer Beau Willimon; even though he was recently nominated for an Academy Award he isn’t held in the same calibre as those others and reason why is immediately apparent upon watching the show.
Willimon writes every single episode of the show alone – like Sorkin did The West Wing, to pertinently namedrop – and so there is noone else to blame for the blunt, overly on the nose speech patterns seen within. Kevin Spacey’s lead Frank Underwood, the house Majority hWhip, infamously breaks the fourth-wall throughout the series, sharing his thoughts with us at home. Even though he is the only one who actively addresses the audience a lot of the other character’s lines are aimed there just as bluntly, their words summarizing a scene for us or selling us some strong exposition.
As he is the only writer though we are allowed time to acclimatise to Beau’s strange style over the course of the season and so these issues soon slip away. The show’s story follows a similar critical trajectory. Once it loses its freshness and ambiguity the tale being told here isn’t actually all that new (and I’m not even referring to the three prior mini-series and the books that they were based on). These plots are plainly all things that you have seen before, the only difference is how long for.
What makes the show worth watching is the way in which Netflix released it; not because it is a nice novelty, but because it changes the entire way that the show is structured. As the episodes were released in one batch they were made by Willimon to be viewed that way, the serialization simultaneously subtle and as strong as its ever been in a series. Intricate elements carry over from episode to episode in such a relaxed fashion, requiring the kind of familiarity that simply isn’t possible with week long gaps wiping your memory after each hour: the show doesn’t just trust you to follow its complex core narrative but also to recall all of the small looks and lies of body language that it levered out of the characters. Hell, the biggest clue that this is something new has to be that the plot concept doesn’t even become clear until a few episodes in, if then; the premiere isn’t a pilot, this whole season is.
More than that though this is really a twelve and a half hour long movie, which is what many have said about other shows in the past but with House of Cards it is true to a new extent. There are no cases of the week, no scenes designed to catch you up, no spinning of the wheels; like a movie every minute here is made to tell the one story, they just have a lot of minutes to do it with. The depth that this approach allows is what makes this show so strong; giving those familiar relationships time to play out deeply, slowly and to their end changes their meaning entirely. Suddenly she isn’t just the reporter sleeping her way to a source, he isn’t just a slime ball politician, she isn’t just a trophy wife, etc., etc. These once cliche characters are constantly allowed to fold out and reveal new sides to themselves as the show progresses in a kind of acting origami that justifies the level of talent involved.
The characters then feel real and lived in, more like people in the end through their conflicting philosophies and actions than the archetypes they could have been. The tone that Fincher sets in the first few episodes is his usual cold and clinical one but he does it without any true dramatic trickery or over-styilisation and so the show still seems a story set within the real world. Willimon, to his credit, never artificially exaggerates the stakes for the sake of a more exciting story and because of this combined restraint and realism the perhaps ‘boring’ world of Washington politics becomes so much more brutal; here even the simplest of events are lent a potency rarely seen in such program’s. There are moments of darkness here that I found as shocking as anything I have ever seen come from HBO or AMC, moments that need to be seen since their simple synopsis does no justice to their effect in context. The soft strings and subtle trumpets of the almost Nick Cave-esque score left haunting by the end as a result.
Now, about that end. The cliffhanger nature of the ending undercuts this premise slightly, recategorizing it as something of a mini-series with two (or more) twelve hour parts, adding at least one break in what was meant to be an entirely seamless show. I can understand the rationale behind this but think that it could easily have been avoided: Frank’s arc finishes perfectly, landing him just where it should given the location of that launch but the secondary sub-plot of that last hour is something that would have worked better in the second season premiere I think. The show doesn’t have any ‘Previously On…’ snippets but seeing the season’s schemes spoken about and deconstructed would have served this same purpose, it also would have meant a cleaner close here for those who wanted it. Still, though, a minor issue in an otherwise outstanding show.
House of Cards won’t be for everybody, it plays it fast and hard with the technicals of politics and leaves aside a lot of the baser emotions – it is in many ways a mirror of Lincoln, focusing in on the same elements but with a polar opposite of approaches, as pitting Fincher V. Spielberg would suggest – but it will, I think, be one for the history books. It will stand alongside the likes of The Soprano’s and Mad Men as a key victory in the TV revolution, in battle for entertainment supremacy. Will it be the death of conventional or cable TV? Will it be the end of the movie? That you will have to ask time, but is it a pretty brilliant show? Yep. And will i be back to watch the second season? I would right now if it were available.