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'House of Cards': Netflix and the reinvention of TV

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A skeleton unearthed beneath a parking lot in Leicester is, according to DNA analysis, the physical remains of Richard III, the Plantagenet king vilified by William Shakespeare. But his wily, ruthless soul lives on in Francis Underwood, a Machiavellian House majority whip in the new Netflix flick House of Cards. As Congressman Underwood, Kevin Spacey, who came to the production after playing Richard III on stage in London and New York, rattles opponents, outwits rivals, and double-crosses allies with diabolical glee. He confides his schemes to the camera and winks in conspiratorial exultation when they succeed.

Inspired by a 1990 BBC series by the same name (itself based on the novel by Michael Dobbs) that portrays the political machinations of a treacherous member of Parliament, House of Cards is a rare instance of enhancement through trans-Atlantic translation. Transposed to Washington from Westminster, the production values are richer and the script more layered. Like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, it makes a restless spectacle out of Congressional contention — at a time when actual partisan politics has paralyzed Capitol Hill.

Writing for The New Yorker, Tim Wu rated House of Cards “about five times better than the average Hollywood film.” One might quibble over the magnitude of superiority, but by producing and distributing House of Cards, Netflix also challenges cable networks such as AMC, FX, HBO, and Showtime, whose long-form dramas (The Sopranos, Damages, The Newsroom, Mad Men, Homeland, Breaking Bad) are often superior to both broadcast TV and theatrical cinema. Broadcast and cable TV have been largely “appointment viewing”; to see the latest episode of Downton Abbey, I must tune in to PBS at 8 p.m. on Sunday. House of Cards, by contrast, is “on-demand viewing”; streamed live over the internet, each installment of Season One is available whenever a Netflix subscriber chooses to watch it. Some have devoured all 13 episodes in one marathon sitting. However, preferring to savor rather than gorge, I have thus far watched only two.

By recruiting A-list actors such as Spacey and Robin Wright (as Claire Underwood, the cunning Congressman’s Lady Macbeth) and accomplished movie directors such as David Fincher, James Foley, Carl Franklin, and Joel Schumacher, Netflix covets artistic respect. But the effect of more on-demand viewing that sophisticated viewers might actually demand could also be to empty local multiplexes of anyone but 12-year-olds and psychopathic shooters. Ceasing to be a social experience, going to the movies will be a private act, like reading a book. Just as I can open a copy of Anna Karenina on any page at any time anywhere and read it at my own pace, so, too, can I experience House of Cards entirely on my own whenever I want. I cannot even talk about it to you, because I might finish Episode 7 while you linger with Episode 4. A fascinating account of chicanery in public affairs, House of Cards is bleakly hilarious, but the culture that it pioneers will not be gregarious.

House of Cards

****
Dir. David Fincher, James Foley, Carl Franklin, Joel Schumacher; writ. Kate Barnow, Michael Dobbs, Sam Forman, Beau Willimon, Andrew Davis, Rick Cleveland, Keith Huff, Sarah Treem; feat. Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara.

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