Netflix‘s new original series House of Cards is making waves, as many people debate whether this is truly the future of television, and whether this represents a solid business model for the company. I watched the whole first season and have definite thoughts about both the show and the direction this represents, and on both fronts I’m excited.
First off, the show itself. House of Cards is one of the smartest, best written television shows, which is saying something considering what a TV renaissance we’re currently going through. The acting is superb, particularly Robin Wright as the icy, intense Claire Underwood. Kevin Spacey grabs most of the headlines, but his Francis Underwood is really in line with a lot of what he’s done before. This is by no means a knock at his performance, but after years of turning in high mark performances it’s exceedingly difficult to up your game each time. What you’re getting here is the Kevin Spacey you know you love; slick, smarmy, and whip smart.
Robin Wright, on the other hand, hasn’t really been thought of as a heavyweight as an actress. Anyone continuing to underestimate her after watching this show is making a serious, profound mistake. In an early episode she advises a young reporter (played very well by Kate Mara) to be careful, the roads are icy. Advice has rarely sounded as threatening or ominous. Her perfectly manicured persona and delivery gives one the impression of walking on ice over deep, dark waters, where you don’t know how deep, or how secure the ice beneath your feet is.
By far, though, the greatest performance in this first series is given by Corey Stoll. As a Representative under Francis’ thumb, he goes from being a scummy user to a man redeemed to a crashing fall that’s devastating to watch. His energy and interplay with the other actors is a thrill, and he deserves many, many awards for this performance.
Next, the writing, which stands very well next to the superb writing we’ve seen in TV over the past 10 to 15 years. Lightning quick exchanges, double and triple crosses, long game politics navigating small ball egos all move at a sharp clip. The show was conceived and produced to drop all 13 episodes simultaneously, and as a result the entirety of the series feels like a unified work, rather than a collection of episodes. There’s no dragging middle, which is the biggest problem plaguing other shows. On the contrary, there’s a delicious tension, similar to the one you might feel reading a particularly exciting novel. The last episode is right there, you don’t have to wait three more weeks to see how it ends. Having that temptation, knowing I could just watch the last episode and see how things turn out, but resisting to still follow the unfolding story line was a great experience.
Which brings me into the benefit of having the entire first season at your fingertips. At first I wasn’t sure it would make that much of a difference. I often wait until a season finishes to watch the entirety of it at the same time so having all 13 episodes debut at the same time wasn’t a major difference. There is a sense, very similar to reading a book, where you aren’t sure who you can discuss the show with, which is frustrating because it’s ripe for conversation. But, like that novel you love, you just need to keep looking, and encourage others to seek it out.
My impression, as a viewer, is this is an excellent direction for Netflix to go. This is the second original show they’ve created, and there are two more planned for later this year. By building a stable of original programming, they’re doing exactly the same thing HBO did a decade earlier. And like HBO, they have an enormous amount of freedom creatively as a result of their model. I’m not sure how many die-hards who aren’t already Netflix subscribers will sign up for one original show, but if April’s new Eli Roth produced series and the Arrested Development fourth season meet or exceed their high expectations, I suspect quite a few people will sign up, particularly once House of Cards and the others begin picking up awards.