Netflix doesn’t want to be an “online Blockbuster” anymore. The DVD rental and streaming behemoth has spend years dealing with content providers, haggling deals and increasing payouts customers latch onto the idea of non physical media being beamed directly into their TVs. All of Netflix’s recent actions, including the ill-conceived (although business-logical) Qwickster service, have been a part of the company’s realization that the money in television and movies doesn’t come from leasing content from production companies. Netflix has realized that the real money comes from creating content.
Netflix has dabbled in the exclusive content arena before. Lillyhammer, a dramedy series starring Soprano’s actor and E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt, was released a few months back, although to little critical acclaim. Waiting in the wings is the next season of Arrested Development, the cult comedy classic about a wealthy dysfunctional family. It’s sure to generate a huge amount of buzz upon its release, but it’s not content owned by Netflix. They simply have exclusive rights. In the meantime, Netflix has put the spotlight of its focus on House of Cards.
Starring Kevin Spacey and produced by David Fincher (who directs the first two episodes), House of Cards is the first Netflix original to receive the full hype and marketing that the company needs to try to place itself as the new HBO. Based on a BBC series of the same name, House of Cards tells the story of the ruthless Frank Underwood. The House Majority Whip, Underwood is passed over by the president-elect for the position of Secretary of State and who then decides to exact his revenge on those who wronged him.
I’ve watched the first two episodes of the series. The first thing you notice is how David Fincher has created a look that is immediately identifiable. He loves to use light, or the lack thereof, to create dark environments filled with sharp shadows and a foreboding sense of unease. His shots are always so clean and angular. I wouldn’t say he has a Hitchcockian eye for the scene, but he always fills his shots with streamlined visuals. The overall look can be described as clinical. Everything looks orderly, even his piles of paper work and dirty laundry.
The next thing you notice is the fact that Frank Underwood breaks the fourth wall frequently. Even while he’s in conversation with other characters, Underwood will turn to the camera and let the audience in on his plans and motivations. I have mixed opinions about this. On one hand, it’s helpful to the audience to provide a way for exposition to work its way into the plot, especially in a story that involves government bureaucracies. On the other hand, the story isn’t so complex that this needs to happen as often as it does. The technique feels, at best, redundant and at worst, insulting. During a closed door meeting with another politician, Underwood turns to the camera to tell us when the “real” meeting begins. This seems obvious, and it seems a disservice to cast an actor of Spacey’s talent and then not have his performance convey his characters intentions. The technique is perhaps too blunt and heavy handed.
The last thing of note is the problem that stems from Spacey’s character being the main focus of the show. Except for a sub plot involving his relationship with a lobbyist, Underwood is in total control of everything around him. This may change through the course of the next 11 episodes, but it makes the initial episodes seem like the focus is misplaced. The young reporter who finds herself Underwood’s connection to the press could potentially be a much more interesting character, as her rise to the top comes from the influence that having a connection in Congress provides. Underwood, at this early point, seems to be flawless in his actions and emotions. He’s never challenged by anything, never shown to have any sort of obstacle to over come. This usually works well for side characters who aren’t always on camera, but it can lead to stale leads.
Netflix has created a beautiful production. The direction has been sharp and professional. The actors are capable and the scripts have been solid. It’s still early, but this has the making of an above average series, with potential to exceed. It has not exploded out of the gates, but few shows do. If anything, one could say that Netflix went a bit too conventional with this show. If Netflix wants to set itself apart from HBO, it had the opportunity to push something truly unique and genre defining. House of Cards, so far, is not that show. It is, however, entertaining and engaging. Netflix has not set the world on fire, but they didn’t drop the ball, either.