It’s easy to declare that Netflix is revolutionizing television with its original series House of Cards. For the first time, the Emmys and the Golden Globes have rewarded online programming with statuettes, and rightly so. Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey are riveting as Claire and Frank Underwood, the D.C. power couple navigating their way to the presidency, and Beau Willimon’s script gives them some sharp one-liners and well-paced storylines. But with its second season released Friday, February 14, I’m beginning to see how conservative the Netflix formula is.
The series is emerging in the Golden Age of Cable Television, where some extraordinary characters are being created. I’m confident that in a hundred years’ time, Walter White and Tony Soprano will be remembered alongside Holden Caulfield and Captain Ahab, and earn their place among the greats of western literature. Like Dickens in the 19th century, the creators of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos have embraced serialization as a way to tell bigger, more complex stories than could fit in a 200-page novel or a two-hour movie. They’ll be the subject of doctoral dissertations.
House of Cards will no doubt make it into the footnotes, only because it capitalizes on successful trends. But it hasn’t shaped them. Netflix recognizes how the episodic format taps directly into the human brain. We’re able to concentrate more easily on plots structured in fifty-minute chunks than three-hour sagas. As a result, we can digest an entire series without so much as breaking to use the loo. With its swathes of user data, tracking where viewers skip ahead, pause, get bored and decide to watch Real Housewives of New Jersey: The Reunion, Netflix can adjust its formula to make its content truly addictive.
House of Cards is virtually guaranteed success. The biggest innovation Netflix brings is commercial, not artistic: all episodes are released at once, allowing the viewer to become immersed in Underwood’s world and the insomnia to begin. The only caveat is that subscribers need to wait a full year between Spacey-binges to resume their obsession. It took me an episode and a half to re-engage with the storyline, which perhaps reflects how forgettable it is once you step outside and breathe some fresh air.
Beau Willimon offers an appealing but very conventional back-room political drama. The only real complexity appears in the performances of Wright and Spacey, and we hear some of the best-crafted dialogue while they’re sharing a cigarette. Spacey triumphs as a languid southern politician. His drawl oozes out like molasses. He talks slowly. He moves slowly (except on his nightly runs). And he seems to have endless time for hobbies. Last season it was videogames; this season it’s toy soldiers. The President rightly asks how he manages to fit this in amidst all the different crises. And the audience is probably wondering the same thing. It’s as though he puts in an hour every day just for our benefit, then takes a long nap after lunch. Spacey still sparkles in his soliloquies, though I question whether they really enhance the character development or venture into self-parody.
Wright’s character is probably the less conventional of the pair. It would be easy to play her as the long-suffering trophy wife, or alternatively the secretly conniving femme fatale. But instead we find someone with enigmatic motives and an ambiguous past. With a single glance, Claire can be smoky, forlorn, and a little bit evil.
But the supporting cast contains some of the least charismatic actors I’ve ever seen graced with a job. Having watched both seasons religiously, I honestly can’t remember many of the secondary characters’ names, nor do I intend to look them up for the purposes of this article. The cast’s biggest problem seems to be handling dialogue. The rhythms come out awkward and unnatural. The pauses are just too long, and the actors seem like they’re talking past each other, gazing ahead and taking cues from some harried assistant director.
And while Underwood’s machinations remain interesting to watch, some of the plot turns are too implausible to add any excitement. Despite everything that isn’t great about House of Cards, it still manages to be bloody good! It won’t linger in your memory or haunt your dreams, but perhaps that isn’t why you subscribe to Netflix in the first place. Find twelve hours to set aside, raid the college vending machine beforehand, and enjoy!