Today Netflix launch their original series House of Cards, I was lucky enough to be given a pre-release screener for episodes 1 and 2.
Set in Washington DC, House of Cards centres around Congressman, Majority Whip, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), who has been promised to be put forward for the position of Secretary of State. When the newly elected President reneges on the promise, Underwood with the encouragement of his wife (Robin Wright), becomes a Machiavellian wizard who plays his co workers like puppets, slowly pitting them against each other to get what he wants.
Meanwhile Zoe Barnes is a lowly reporter in The Washington Herald, fed up of local county court reports and to start a blog about the real behind the news stories of Capital Hill. She approaches Underwood and in return for anonymity, he feeds her his wealth of knowledge and secrets.
Ok, so far so good in this remake of a BBC mini series and there are many television shows that have similar storylines with different backdrops, including the currently broadcast ‘Revenge‘. In the first two episodes where ‘House of Cards’ comes into its own, is in the boundaries it doesn’t have. Traditional television shows have to adhere to certain criteria, what the network want, language being used, even time of day a show is aired. With Netflix, all of these boundaries are gone, the only thing stopping the creativity of the directors and writers are themselves and if the audience can and will adapt to their style.
First off, this doesn’t look like it’s not going to be broadcast on traditional television. It’s crisp, clean and gorgeous. Having Kevin Spacey in your cast is always a good thing, having him put his money where is mouth is, is better, he’s an executive producer. The depth of the cast also makes you this seriously, Robin Wright (Moneyball, Jenny in Forrest Gump), Corey Stall (Law & Order), Michael Kelly (Criminal Minds) amongst others. Back it up with David Fincher (The Social Network/Fight Club) directing and it’s a heavyweight.
For this viewer, where ‘House of Cards’ exceeds is in bending the rules. Spacey’s monlogues, directly to camera, are fascinating. He introduces the audience to the situation, the location, explains everything going on, he catches you up on the backstory in uberquick time. He turns away from the camera and it’s back to the scene with his fellow actors. After the first or second time of this we know what to expect but it changes. At one point Underwood is being spoken to by Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey), the President’s right hand woman. Underwood sits at his desk, Vasquez is standing, she walks out of shot and mid scene Underwood faces the camera and makes an eye gesture, ‘Yea Right’, before continuing with the scene. Underwood’s behaviours make it impossible to back out, the viewer is an active participant in what’s going on.
That’s not the only thing, when text messages are sent, a dialogue box appears on screen with the message, very multimedia like. And there’s some clever editing, cutting back and forth, especially noticeable when the words ‘Monica Lewins…’ are cut off.
At points throughout also, there are certain throwbacks to Film Noir, especially when Underwood meets Zoe Barnes in public. He always seems to be in the shadow, she’s in the light. His face is never fully seen, we mostly see the back of his head, showing how he wants to remain anonymous in the whole information swap.
People are watching television differently now, most people watch their programmes through Sky+ or by watching boxsets. Not everyone can sit down at the same time every week and watch something, life gets in the way. While Netflix is an online content distributor, House of Cards is a great move into making them a content maker. Whether it’s a television series or a web series we watch, it’s all still moving visual content. If Netflix keep up the high quality production, interesting storylines and add to their catalogue of Netflix Originals, they could completely change the television landscape.