Sunday 3 February 2013

Netflix Original Series - HOUSE OF CARDS - Review & Analysis

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I have been a constant advocate of giant changes to the way that Film & TV are distributed in the modern era -- and now it seems my prayers have been answered by none other than Netflix.

'House Of Cards' is a thirteen episode TV-series. Actually, it's more like a thirteen hour movie. Released solely on Netflix, through all of its worldwide territories, on the same day. Every single episode is available. Immediately.

That's why I'm loving Netflix right now, because they have their finger right on the pulse. Bringing back 'Arrested Development'? Yes please. The common myth in the world at the moment is that people have no attention spans -- we can't get our minds away from Twitter for more than four minutes at a time. But across the world this week people are staying glued to their screens all day, soaking up 'House Of Cards'.

And this isn't mindless junk, it's gripping drama. Expertly written in a way that's engaging yet fascinatingly mysterious. After ten episodes you know what's going on yet realise you don't actually have a clue what's going on. Exactly what is Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) up to? And why am I suspicious of Claire Underwood? (Robin Wright).

There used to be a clear line between film and television; the glory was all in the motion pictures. Then the best screenwriters began turning their backs on the big screen, to focus on the small one. It was where they could find the creative freedom to tell their stories. The actors rapidly followed. It's no surprise that people spend weekends on TV Box-Set Marathons; because they're created by the best writing, producing, directing and acting talent in America. They look just like movies, yet they last way longer and the characters are so much more developed.

With 'House Of Cards', you realise just how blurred the lines have become. David Fincher and Kevin Spacey took this on by choice, because it was the best medium in which to do this story. When you sign up with a TV Network, you have an hour a week, and depending on who the broadcaster is, you're liable to be have your show ripped apart by distracting commercials every five minutes.

Everybody hates the way TV works, it's just there's never been another choice.

But now that Netflix is funding and distributing its own projects, the future has truly arrived, and this might just be the death of television, and it'll affect movies too. If people have the time and inclination - they can watch 'House Of Cards' in one sitting. Block out a day, order some pizza, and sink into the story for thirteen hours. That's powerful. After seeing this, nearly every Film Director in Hollywood will be wanting a similar opportunity. The chance to do something intelligent and in-depth, online. The audience potential is huge. This thing is WORLDWIDE, and IMMEDIATE!

I've written a lot about how illegal streaming is growing because it gives the people what they want in the way they want it. And by that, I don't mean free stuff; I mean easy access, and complete control of how to absorb the content. We don't want the dumb commercials anymore and we don't want to be drip-fed content. We love nothing more than settling down with four seasons of our new favourite show.

That's why the simultaneous release of all thirteen episodes is genius. We're engaged more than ever when the content is GREAT, when a show is truly worth it. That's why 'The West Wing' has gone on to such legendary status, because people are still discovering it, staying up all night binge-watching, and then recommending it to their friends. Same for 'The Wire', and 'Lost', even 'Friends'!

This is one of Kevin Spacey's finest performances. His turn as Francis Underwood is immensely gripping--- you find yourself rooting for him despite his evidently evil machinations.  Robin Wright is unerringly cold and calculating as Francis' wife, Claire Underwood. Together they make a chillingly perfect team.

Another standout performance was given by Kate Mara, who I've seen in bits and pieces over the years, most recently in the film '10 Years', which I wrote about previously.  But this is surely her best screen work to date. She begins as an atypically ambitious young journalist, but the character develops in far more fascinating directions through each episode -- until by the end, you'd hardly recognise her from the Zoe Barnes we met at the beginning. To say too much more would surely be on spoiler territory, so I'll just say that I was hugely impressed with how Mara portrayed her character, and I can't wait to see more of her work.

Same goes for Corey Stoll, who plays Congressman Peter Russo. This poor character is completely controlled and ruined by Francis Underwood. Russo, already an alcoholic, fumbles through each episode desperately struggling for even an inch of control or self-respect. He's a riveting character, and feels all-too-real which is a credit to Stoll's great acting.
As you'd expect when David Fincher is involved, the show is stylishly shot. When Fincher directed the Aaron Sorkin penned 'The Social Network', the screenwriter often said, "He made scenes of people talking about typing look like bank robberies". That's what you get with Fincher - he makes the boring fascinating. 'House Of Cards' is thirteen hours of Kevin Spacey walking in and out of rooms, having small conversations and then walking out again -- yet it's all so atmospheric and compelling.

This is one of those shows where, in many ways, not a lot happens. But the characters are so absorbing that you go along with it, based on faith. Because you know this is all leading somewhere. 

WARNING: The next two paragraphs are potentially mildly spoiler-ish. Maybe best to skip over them if you haven't watched the show.
The unfortunate thing, from my point of view, is that come the end -- you are led absolutely nowhere. The final episode, which promises so much -- ends flatly. The end result, which you may have had an inkling of near the very beginning (or something close), begins to fall into place in the final few episodes. In the last three parts, once we get a sense of what Francis' intentions are -- the show flattens, loses its zip. The final episode, which promised so much, delivers exactly what is expected, in an almost casual manner -- offering no excitement, no intrigue, no sense of denouement. 

It seems likely that the final episode is designed to leave us wanting more, begging for Season 2, but to this end, it falls short. When you're gifted a thirteen episode story at once, when you watch a character weave his way in and out of situations in search of a goal -- to not deliver on that in the end, in a satisfying way, is majorly disappointing. You don't end watching this show excited and hungry for more, you end it flatly; wondering why it didn't deliver a killer punch. You don't feel satiated.

Spoiler alert over, you're safe. 

Netflix could really be onto something. Original content, delivered immediately and cheaply to the hungry consumer: this is exactly what we want. Will it become commonplace? Perhaps; but the material has to be excellent, and it has to be expertly put together. If not, there'll be tons of thirteen hour shows where nobody gets past the thirty minute mark. 

This time, they had Fincher and Spacey, they were in safe hands. And in 'Arrested Development', it's hard to imagine they could fail. But new and original productions will be more risky. Netflix could, potentially, revolutionise the industry, bringing us wildly creative projects from the best minds in the business. 

It's a risk that I hope they continue to gamble with. 

'House Of Cards' is, I would say, a big success. Hugely compelling, with fantastic performances from some of the top actors in the industry. As a model for how things can be done in the new world; online and immediately accessible, this feels like the future. In fact, it feels like where we're at, right now.

My personal opinion is that the first series ends poorly, that the audience are not given the ending they deserve after keeping faith for thirteen long hours. It will be interesting to see if other viewers agree with me. If I'm right, then the team behind the project may have misfired; because word of mouth will undoubtedly suffer. I think 'House Of Cards' is a great experiment with so much about it that is fantastic; but do I recommend you give up thirteen hours to watch it? Not necessarily. I'm not sure the journey will take you where you want to go. 

But the journey that Netflix is just beginning; I'm along for the ride.

Care to share?


  1. I really enjoyed the ending. This isn't structured like a normal TV show with formulaic cliffhangers galore, it's a story, and it only makes sense to give the season its own conclusion. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I see how brilliant and underplayed the ending was. For Underwood, our guide, things ended calmly, the battle was, for a time, over and now it was time to soak in the bounty. Meanwhile, there are journalists right on his tail ready to expose all of his exploits. The cliffhanger is subtle, like the Breaking Bad season 4 finale. The opposite might be the Sherlock season 1 finale. Personally I like a finale with a conclusion, but with layers of expectation.

  2. Completely disagree about the ending. It was an ending in line with the rest of the series; subtle and understated. Anything more would have felt out of place, forced and contrived, some sort of gimmicky device that would be foreign to the show.

  3. I am impressed with the story in the first 10 episodes. Not so much of the last 3 episodes. Overall... I hope that the next 13 hours will be as much captivating as the initial 10 episodes of the first season.
    Ending of the first season... mixed, we can expect more from the screen and story "creators". They are paid "big $" after all...

  4. "Expertly written in a way that's engaging yet fascinatingly mysterious."

    Yet you fail to mention the writer, Beau Willimon. I guess you're too busy starfucking Fincher and Spacey. Must write itself.

    1. Anonymous - you are completely right. It was a huge error on my part to not mention Beau's work by his name. This is an unusual error by me. As a writer, normally the main person I am keen to support is the writer.

      On the charges of 'starfucking', I claim innocence, but I do admit I made an error by not mentioning Beau Willimon's name!

    2. Superb adaptation and acting.Check out Davies' UK original to see the roots of Francis Underwood.

  5. I hated watching Zoe playing Nancy Drew with her colleagues. They made ridiculous assumptions and jumped to conclusions just so we the audience could be in suspense that they are finding out "the truth" (Linking Kapeniak all the way to Underwood wanting the VP nomination involved a bunch of leaps of faith that just weren't grounded in reality.)

    And what is the truth? That Underwood got Russo to dump the Shipyard in exchange for a Governor nomination? Is that really a big story? To me that sounds like normal politics. Educated people know you have to scratch some backs in Washington to get what you want. To me, the whole suspense of their investigation falls flat because there's nothing significant to find.

    There's also the fact that Underwood has a "fall guy" for EVERYTHING. Russo's shipyard scandal directly benefited Womack. If that story is leaked, Underwood will throw him under the bus. Womack won't be able to fire back without admitting he conspired to get the Majority Leadership.

    And the Kopeniak scandal? Russo directly helped Durant get the Secretary of State spot. There is literally no way to tie Underwood to that considering Zoe was the one who actually initiated Durant's nomination.

    They could TRY linking it to Underwood, but Underwood can brush it off as a smear campaign. The reporters will sound like crazy conspiracy theorists if they even suggest Underwood mentored Russo to run for Governor just so he could tank it towards the end. Without linking Underwood to Russo's death, there's no way they can put anything on him.

  6. am I mistaken in thinking this is about "end justifies the means" Here Underwood becomes President without having had a "single vote" for the job. A means for capturing leadership of a country by guile and manipulation, and perhaps, in the end, being exactly what the country needs? He has no children, he is a pragmatist....and, once president, he'll do what is best for the country???