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Saturday, February 16, 2013

We're about nine episodes into HOUSE OF CARDS. That's the first series funded entirely by Netflix. They made an interesting decision to make all 13 episodes available immediately.

I find that decision surprising. While the idea appeals to those of us who like to binge on a series, they work on a subscription model. They're hoping HOUSE OF CARDS will be their "killer app," the must-see only-watch-it-here show that SOPRANOS was to HBO, and MAD MEN is to AMC. But if I can watch all 13 episodes in the first, free month, then why would I continue to pay the subscription? I imagine it's to get people into the store, the idea being they'll get used to Netflix. Maybe we will.

The series started promisingly. Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood is a sort of Richard III-like House Democratic Whip. When the President rewards his loyalty with a stab in the back, he sets out for revenge and ... something. The fun of the first five or so episodes is watching him maneuver to weaken the President while building himself up. He's ruthless, and charming in a wicked way.

Then the series starts to get mushy. Things start to go wrong for his plan. He stops being smart and Machiavellian. He starts being an ordinary politician who makes political and personal mistakes. And he actually seems to be doing his job, pushing his party's interests without actually serving his own ulterior motives.

(Nonspecific hints to where the series goes in the following; consider them spoilers if you will.)

Meanwhile, his wife has abandoned her Lady Macbeth-like support of her husband, which was so interesting in the first episode, and begun pursuing her own unfathomable plans, sabotaging one of her projects in favor of another, out of what seems to be no more than spite.

A series has to deliver the goods on its pilot. The pilot promised an arc of a wicked man outmaneuvering his unsuspecting opponents. The episodes I'm watching now seem to have abandoned that promise. Now I'm watching a political soap.

As a big WEST WING fan, I'm also a bit disappointed in the politics of the show. WEST WING had a raft of political consultants who actually worked in the White House. That's why it felt so accurate.

HOUSE OF CARDS feels like Beau Willimon, the writer, is making up stuff based on watching the news. Frank Underwood has currently hitched his wagon to the Pennsylvania governor race, where he's put forward a Congressman he knows is an alcoholic drug addict with a habit of frequenting prostitutes. The guy's 30 days into recovery. The Congressman has already sabotaged his own political future by acquiescing in the closing of a Navy yard in his own district, infuriating his core supporters, at Underwood's own insistence. His whole campaign depends on people believing that he's been sober for a year, when he has been sober only for a month. How could this plan possibly go wrong? It's not a chess move, it's a crazy gamble with no guaranteed benefit.

And no Congressman smart enough to get elected would betray his own constituency publicly. He would kick and scream in public about defending his Navy yard, and then he'd sell out his district privately, if he had to. Hearings are for posturing, and communicating with the public; all the deals are done behind the scenes.

If I'm watching a cop show, I want the cops to be smarter than me about cop stuff. If I'm watching a political show, I want the politicians to be smarter than me about politics. I hate stopping an episode in the middle to have to turn to Lisa and say, "The smart way they could have done this would be...."

I don't want to diss soaps. If someone wants to put a political soap on the air, that's fine. My problem is that the show didn't start as a soap, and now I'm unclear what I'm watching the show for. If you're writing a show, you should be clear why people are watching. If you're writing BREAKING BAD, I gather, people are watching so they can yell "Walter, no!" and "Jesse, think!" If you're writing a comedy about dumb people, then you should be thinking about dumb things they can do. My objection is that this is supposed to be a show about smart people who are good at what they do... and I'm not sure it is, any more.

UPDATE:  Now having watched the full season (BIG SPOILERS), I still think Underwood's plan is incredibly reckless and unlikely. It depends entirely on fronting a drunk as a recovering drunk for a precise period of time, and then reliably pushing him off the wagon. I haven't had a lot of drunks in my life, thank goodness, but I am pretty sure you never know when an alcoholic will seriously get on the wagon, or what kind of stress will push him or her off.

I also think there's a danger in keeping the audience too firmly excluded from your main character's plot. Part of the fun of watching a wicked man plot is knowing what the plot is. If it seems like he's floundering, then what are you rooting for? Instead of suspense, you have surprise. As any Hitchcock fan will tell you, surprise gives you a momentary pleasure, while suspense can keep you going for as long as the storyteller likes.

And what the heck was up with the episode where Frank goes to his alma mater and gets drunk all episode long?


Keep watching, I think at least one thing coming will surprise you, and make him seem smart again.

By Blogger Scot Boyd, at 1:46 PM  

Heh. Yeah. You probably should have waited to write this post.

By Blogger DMc, at 2:03 PM  

Or not, DMc, 'cause without you guys, how would I know to keep watching?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 2:22 PM  

Check out the original BBC House of Cards (all three series). It's a masterpiece. It's also on netflix.

By Blogger Dan, at 11:14 PM  

I loved the first season of the American series but also wondered about the drinking episode. Was it to hint at an "inappropriate" past with his college buddy?? Also now watching the British original on Netflix. Too early to say which I prefer.

By Blogger Unknown, at 1:27 PM  

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