How Netflix's House of Cards Breaks TV

By Norman Chan

Spoiler-free discussion of the new streaming-only show.

I really dig Netflix's new drama, House of Cards. After watching the first episode after the Superbowl, my housemates and I finished the entire first season last week, average three episodes a night. And that's what Netflix apparently wants. The $100 million spent on the show (spread over two 13-episode seasons) is a huge investment and gamble on Netflix's part--a wholly one third of video service's allocated budget for original programming it will spend over the next three years.

But more so than that, it's a statement. It's Netflix CEO Reed Hasting's foot on the ground against the culture of manufactured dissatisfaction that fuels the traditional television business. Manufactured dissatisfaction, Hastings has argued, is the archaic idea that television shows are written, produced, and programmed to build up artificial anticipation in its viewers. Must-see TV is so because networks make you wait a whole summer after a season finale cliffhanger, because sweeps week yields high ad rates. But Netflix isn't beholden to advertising, its original programming is produced based on what its databases know about its 29 million subscribers' viewing habits, and its primary goal is to grow that number of people paying $8 a month while growing its content library. There are only so many episodes of Arrested Development 30 Rock to attract new subscribers.

It's also strange that director David Fincher--who by reports is obsessed with the television medium--would choose the antithesis of a conventional "network" to produce his first serial project. The growing pains here are very apparent. House of Cards struggles to reconcile its mission of disrupting the typical scripted drama format while still being, well, a scripted drama. As Time's TV critic James Poniewozik wrote in his review of the show, House of Cards' narrative structure is hardly revolutionary. A and B plots, familiar character arcs, cliffhangers, and even the 13 50-minute episode season structure harken to a format birthed by broadcast and polished by premium networks like HBO.

The real difference, then, lies in distribution. Specifically, that all 13 episodes of this first season were pushed live at once. This is what Netflix plans to do with all its original shows; it's the big slap in the face of manufactured dissatisfaction. The rippling consequences of this decision are fascinating. Here are some things I've noticed so far--both good and bad.

First is the obvious breakdown of the water-cooler discussion. Because the show is not paced out weekly, like Game of Thrones, there's no opportunity to talk out individual episodes with friends unless you're watching the show together. Watching with friends House of Cards is more akin to reading books in a book club--friends have to agree on a pace that works for their own groups.

But the internet waits for no one, and House of Cards doesn't fit nicely into the tradition of episode reviews and recap blogs online. Reviewers are forced to either review the entire series after a marathon session, or arbitrarily split up their reviews in a way that can't possibly align with all their readers.

This is even more apparent on the internet's water coolers: forums. Some discussion threads are enforcing spoiler embargos until a month after the show went live, and others are splitting each of the show's chapters into individual threads. Either way, it makes tracking a conversation that much more difficult--I never felt like I had time to process thoughts about an individual episode before chiming in or diving into what others thought about it.

As a corollary, anticipatory discussion is also nixed. A show like House of Cards is unlikely to build the same kind of analytical discourse that weekly serials did, a la Doc Jensen Lost columns. Milestone episodes like House of Cards' Chapter 10 seem written to foster a emotional response from viewers. With no mandatory time to digest those events before the next episode streams, a significant part of the television experience is lost.

On the positive side, the show moves at a brisk pace, with very little that felt like filler. This could easily have been a 22-episode season on network TV (well, maybe not network), but the use of 13 episodes as "chapters" felt really purposeful, building up to a suspenseful final few episodes.

Fincher, Spacey, and co. knowing that the series was booked for two seasons in advance also really seem to help the pacing of the show. There's no worry of it being cancelled due to low "ratings" and having to wrap up the story in advance. Like Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse said about Lost, the best thing to happen to that show was knowing exactly how many seasons it had left. Mapping out House of Cards to 26 episodes over two seasons means we can expect no inane plot deviations or bizarre character introductions.

I also agreed with another point from Time's review: watching all the episodes over a short period of time made it easier to catch recurrent themes and motifs. This isn't to say that other good shows don't have these too, but they're definitely accentuated here when imagery and striking dialogue are fresh in your mind.

My biggest fear with Netflix's original programming model is how it'll choose to greenlight its shows. As a data-driven company, Netflix has said it will pick up shows it knows its viewers want. House of Cards was pursued because Netflix knows that a large number of its subscribers like political thrillers, and those people also tend to like movies directed by David Fincher and those starring Kevin Spacey. That's why its next original show will tap into another large portion of its subscriber-base: families.

How number crunching and metric analysis will direct content and affect creativity is yet to be seen, but if Netflix's faith in big data gives us more shows like House of Cards, I'm not complaining. Data is the preferable master compared to commercial breaks and poor product placement.