House of Cards, Netflix, and Power

It isn’t news that Netflix has just released House of Cards – their adaptation of the 1990’s British series of the same name. I’m probably not the first person you’ve heard of that recently started watching the show, taking in a few episodes at once. I’m also not likely the first person you’ve heard to say the show is good but not great. It’s well executed and well acted, but merely okay in the writing department (so far); a little too heavy handed or on-the-nose with some of its themes.

I’m three episodes deep, but it’s a scene from the first episode that struck me last night. Zoe Barnes, an ambitious young journalist, is talking to Representative Frank Underwood in his home. It’s their first real meeting and, new to this game, Zoe is attempting to use flirtation and revealing clothes to extract information from the congressman. He’s a Washington veteran and calls out the cheapness of her tricks. Impatient, Zoe tries to be direct, leading to this excellent exchange:

“Oh, is foreplay over?” asks Underwood.

“I read somewhere that JFK never lasted more than three minutes,” Zoe says.

“Your point being?” he asks.

She counters: “Time is precious. Powerful people don’t have the luxury of foreplay.”

This scene is the show at its best; the dialog is good but also feels real. The timing is great, and so is the tension and uncertainty of where this meeting will lead. But I disagree with the sentiment. I was immediately reminded – really, right in the moment – of a scene from Scorsese’s Goodfellas. In Henry Hill’s reminiscing, he contemplates the situation of mob capo Paul Cicero, noting that at gatherings he typically sat down in one place while everybody else came to him and other people did all the talking. He observed that, “Paulie may have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn’t have to move for anybody.” That, according to Hill, was power. No rushing, no regard for the scarcity of time. I think Hill’s comment says a bit about the changing power structures of the entertainment industry – changes for which Netflix is partially responsible.

You see Netflix (and increasingly, everybody else) doesn’t have a lot of power with audiences right now when it comes to releasing new programming, so they don’t have time for “foreplay”. They cannot afford to make an audience wait from week to week to see each new episode, because waiting risks that viewers will lose interest in the process. So Netflix skips the foreplay and gets right to the point by dropping the entire season on us at once. This allows the strength of the season-long narrative arc to draw us through the show’s rough patches, because we don’t have all week to wonder whether it’s worth giving up another hour. Was an episode perfect? Not even close. But if I want to know what happens next, I just have to queue up the next installment whenever I want to find out.

David Fincher, who directed the first two episodes, said in an interview last month:

The world of 7:30 on Tuesday nights, that’s dead. A stake has been driven through its heart, its head has been cut off, and its mouth has been stuffed with garlic. The captive audience is gone. If you give people this opportunity to mainline all in one day, there’s reason to believe they will do it.

I think he summed it up rather well. There are, of course, exceptions. Maybe not to the “specific time slot” or “specific day of the week” aspects of his quote (thanks to DVRs). But there are a few TV channels and a few shows with enough power left that they can take their time. HBO and AMC are the two cable channels that come to mind. These two channels have earned a reputation for high quality television drama, so they can afford to keep up with the traditional television schedules, releasing a series one episode at a time while production is still in progress. AMC has even taken to the frustrating habit of splitting seasons of its most popular shows in half, spreading two half-seasons over an even longer stretch of the calendar.

Could Netflix get away with such behavior on a new series? It’s possible, but I doubt it. Lillyhammer, Netflix’s first original show, was just a blip on the radar even though it was released the same way. Any extra power for House of Cards would seem to come from its high profile director and leading man. And when Arrested Development returns this year, that will surely trade on the strength of its preceding seasons.

Granted, this isn’t all about the power of content producers for Netflix. Their customers are already used to binging on TV series. It’s how many of my friends and myself watched Friday Night Lights or were introduced to both Downton Abbey and Sherlock. And it’s not like Netlfix has advertisers around these episodes of original programming, either. But if Netflix is trying to establish itself as an alternative “channel” of original content, they’re not in a position to release a series piecemeal as they wrap up production. I’ll be interested to see, if House of Cards is a hit, whether Netflix considers getting episodes of other seasons/shows out earlier, while a season is still in process. It would mean audiences have to wait from week to week, but they wouldn’t have to wait for the entire series to wrap before they can start watching. That’s the kind of anticipation only afforded shows with real power.