Is House of Cards Redefining Television?

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Kevin Spacey/ House of Cards

By guest contributor Kevin Hobson

We’re just three months into the 2013 television season, and so far the most interesting and talked-about show on TV is not... actually... on TV.

It’s House of Cards, duh! David Fincher’s BBC-adapted political thriller garnered most of its initial buzz because it’s available only on Netflix, which released the entire 13-episode season for streaming viewing on February 1st.

While the unique delivery method and what it means for television have dominated much of the conversation about the show (this post being no exception) the content of the series bears recognition as well.

House of Cards is a dark, cynical and utterly compelling look behind the curtain at the machinations of Washington politics. The characters are ruthless and self-absorbed, and watching them take their manipulation to near-artistic levels makes for insanely watchable television.


At the center of it all is House Majority Whip Francis (Frank) Underwood, played with unwavering gusto by Kevin Spacey. Underwood is a devious, vindictive and stunningly capable Congressman, bent on implementing a complex, clandestine master-plan of revenge on the President, for passing him over as Secretary of State. When we meet Frank in the first episode he’s putting an injured dog out of its misery by snapping its neck with his bare hands, all the while soliloquizing through the fourth wall, informing the audience “I have no patience for useless things.”

Yeah, it’s gonna be that kinda show.

Robin Wright/ House of Cards

Frank’s wife Claire, as ruthless a CEO whose motives (almost) always align perfectly with Frank’s, is played by Robin Wright, who makes a fantastic, I-didn’t-even-know-I-missed-her comeback. Sexy, smart and at times downright scary, Wright brings an elegant emotional depth to Claire, who against all odds almost seems to function as the (cold, blackened) heart of the show.

Kate Mara rounds out the starring cast as Zoe Barnes, the ambitious young reporter who, through a clumsy yet calculated seduction, secures Congressman Underwood as a confidential source and becomes the hottest  young voice on the Beltway.

Reviews of the show—mostly positive—are still trickling in. This likely because the very nature of the show’s delivery mechanism allows us to watch it whenever we want. With all 13 episodes available simultaneously, Netflix’s grand experiment in original content is also a referendum on the very idea of what TV is and how we consume it.

While the all-at-once system makes for great binging (and the show is decidedly binge-worthy), it also makes developing a sustained buzz a bit more challenging. The only real rationale for making “appointment television” anymore is to avoid spoilers, as social media has evolved to respond in real-time to the latest episodes of everyone’s favorite shows, with live tweeting of episodes and day-after blog recaps.

There’s no set protocol for avoiding spoilers with House of Cards, however. You’re only “caught up” once you’ve watched the whole series, and once you’ve seen it all, there’s not a lot of “OMG what’s going to happen next week?” momentum to keep the conversation going.

Fortunately, House of Cards has enough shocking twists and “could you believe it when...?” moments to give viewers plenty to talk about. But the pros and cons of Netflix’s all-in-one delivery strategy are still being weighed—and the fact that Netflix has yet to release any viewership data makes it difficult to know what success for the show even looks like.

To say that television as we know it is at a crossroads would be severely understating things. Even the phrase “watching TV” is slowly losing its meaning, as it slides towards the anachronistic irrelevance of its brethren “dialing a phone” or “listen to a record,” everyday sentiments rendered obsolete by the advances of modern technology.

More and more viewers watch their “TV shows” on non-TV devices like tablets, computer displays or smartphones, and with the advent of online, web or streaming-only content available on-demand from providers like Netflix and also Hulu, the very idea of a “TV show” is becoming an anachronism as well.

After all, if a show is delivered to its audience over the internet, in one lump of 13 episodes, without any specified broadcast schedule or tune-in time, is it even really television?

The Academy of Arts & Sciences says it is. The Emmys were ahead of the game on this one, changing their rules back in 2008 to make digital shows from streaming internet providers eligible for their yearly awards.

House of Cards

So how might House of Cards fare come award season? It’s a beautifully crafted show for sure; the cinematography, art direction, music and editing are all superb, and could certainly garner nominations in the Academy of Television Arts & Science’s technical categories.

Kevin Spacey’s scenery-chewing, fourth-wall breaking, oppressively Southern-accented portrayal of Frank Underwood can be mesmerizing, but also might be too broad and within-his-wheelhouse for to win him any statues. That shouldn’t stop Wright, Mara and Corey Stoll—who also shines as a drug addicted junior Congressman caught up in Underwood’s underhandedness—from entering the conversation as potential front-runners for top acting prizes.

Emmy nominations won’t be released until July 18th, so there’s plenty of time for folks to play catch-up. And while in reality, it’s doubtful that House of Cards will challenge Breaking Bad or Homeland for top Emmy prestige, it should undoubtedly be in the mix. After all, it’s certainly the best show to ever “air” its season premiere and finale on the same day.

Ultimately, it doesn’t make a difference what you call it. We’re in a golden age of serialized, episodic narrative told through the visual medium. House of Cards is great storytelling, and a fine addition to the canon of superlative contemporary shows—no matter how you look at it.