By now, a lot of people are familiar with the Netflix experience – freedom followed by frustration.
The freedom is about being able to watch movies or an entire season of a TV series at any time. That's nice. Binge-watching on the weekend or, for insomniacs, all-night gorging on any night. Then comes the frustration. The movie selection seems smaller than promised. You can see all the Spider-Man movies you want, but that indie movie you read about, the one that isn't at the local multiplex, isn't on Netflix either. And the TV shows you hoped to see, the ones on HBO or Showtime, they're missing too. You can see Pretty Little Liars over and over until you can recite the dialogue, but Season 1 of Girls? Not there.
The new series House of Cards is meant to establish Netflix as the new HBO, the new Showtime, the new purveyor of must-see, talked-about, quality TV. The 13-part series is compensation for all the missing serious-content TV – and all of the episodes were unleashed on the weekend, to some fanfare.
The series matches the general Netflix experience. Oh, sure it's freeing to watch a new series in one giant gulp and not have to wait for a new episode to be delivered each week. But it's deeply frustrating to find that House of Cards is ordinary when it could be great and, eventually, boring when it should be brilliant.
Based, loosely, on the 1990 BBC miniseries of the same title, it's all about inside-Washington power broking, betrayal and bitterness. And, lending an edge of veracity, it's emphatically in the present, with a new president being inaugurated in January of 2013.
Directed – for the first episodes – by David Fincher (the Oscar-winning movie The Social Network) and written in the main by Beau Willimon (the movie Ides of March), it is in the hands of two people who have no experience with long-form television, and, boy, does it matter. The series looks good and starts strongly with Kevin Spacey commanding things as Francis "Frank" Underwood, the Democratic House Majority Whip. Expecting to be appointed Secretary of State, Frank is seriously angry but near-silent when he's passed over and told to keep working in Congress to get the new president's agenda on track.
Mere minutes after being told the bad news, Frank is conspiring with his wife Claire (Robin Wright) and his chief of staff to wreak revenge and undermine an administration that has scorned him. It's a long, elaborate game he's got planned. From the get-go, Frank addresses the camera in a southern drawl (he's from South Carolina), oozing contempt for others and promising a terrible vengeance.
In the opening episodes there is grimness to the proceedings and the look of the series. It's a very wintry Washington we're looking at. While Underwood and his wife proceed with their cold calculations, other characters, weaker than them, are unveiled. There's the ambitious young reporter for The Washington Herald (based on the Washington Post, with a Katharine Graham-type owner pulling some strings) named Zoe (Kate Mara) who wants power. There's Congressman Pete Russo (Corey Stoll) with multiple weaknesses – drink, drugs and women. Both are pawns for Underwood.
This is absorbing until we get to the scenes at The Washington Herald. For a series that sets its sights on a ferocious depiction of the ruthlessness of politics, it is bizarre to present a major newspaper as this naive and ignorant about the Internet. Zoe wants a blog. This is scoffed at. The paper runs a devastating story, and senior editors sit around in amazement looking at the online traffic. When a victim of Underwood's vengeance is torn apart by a newspaper story, he actually finds out by reading the newspaper at his desk. In the morning. This is to be scoffed at – in any political world approaching reality, he'd be alerted hours earlier, probably by Twitter. And, in a later episode that points to the wobbly direction of the drama, a senior editor dismisses Twitter as "a fad." Way to go with the realism.
Things have gone awry by Episode 5. The subtlety established in the first hour has evaporated. What ensue in the fifth hour are what are best called "movie moments." That is, there are near-magical twists that belong in some stand-up-and-cheer movie, not serious television.
Neither Fincher nor Willimon is a TV auteur, and House of Cards does not develop with the organic storytelling steadiness of the best of television. Great long-form TV, now in abundance, uses storytelling growth through the power of suggestion, the deft placement of building blocks of plot and a richness of character development afforded by the long arc of a 10- to 13-hour narrative. Of course, it's not about veracity only. It doesn't matter if the ad industry in the 1960s didn't operate exactly as portrayed on Mad Men. What matters is the symmetry of the plotting and the slow build of the psychological drama at work.
House of Cards is, eventually, a soaper that leans heavily on movie tropes and, as a result, goes off the rails. It's fast-paced silliness with a sheen of seriousness that is overplayed. One example – Frank has a fetish for ribs, always cooked by a guy from back home who can be called upon day or night. We get it. Frank is a carnivore, eating other people for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Yeah, do we get it.
The series is no turning point in TV, cable or Internet divisions. Kelsey Grammer's TV series Boss did politics better. Showtime's House of Lies covers the consulting and lobbying rackets with more scathing cleverness (and uses the address-the-camera technique with greater skill). The Sopranos dealt with male power, intimidation and secrecy with more aplomb.
Nice try, Netflix, but House of Cards is ho-hum drama, reaching for but failing to find the sweet spot of the very best of contemporary TV. With the freedom to make it great – $100-million reportedly spent on it – the final result is frustrating.