If the cabinet nominees doing rhetorical battles with Congress don’t sate your appetite for politics, you can turn to imaginary rhetorical battles in Congress. House of Cards is a series starring Kevin Spacey as the House majority whip, Rep. Francis Underwood. The show reimagines a 1990s BBC series of the same name, whose shockingly cynical Francis Urquhart often broke the fourth wall to address the viewer with a line that became a catchphrase in Britain: “You may very well think that. But I couldn’t possibly comment.” As our conniving guide to power in D.C., Spacey also makes the same aside, but with a courtly South Carolinian accent.
Cynical takes on politics are nothing new, but House of Cards is a first: an original Netflix series in 13 episodes, with top talent — part of a play by the distributor to become a major producer. Netflix pioneered a new way of watching shows in which an entire season could be consumed on DVD after it had aired — Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Breaking Bad. Now Netflix may be changing the nature of television by dropping the entire first season all at once on February 1.
“We were conditioned into thinking TV had to happen once a week at a certain hour,” Beau Willimon, House of Cards’ executive producer, tells Kurt Andersen. Now, “you have people ‘binge-watching’ two to three seasons of a show over the course of a weekend. I think it will become the norm.”
Willimon was the playwright behind the political movie Ides of March, and Netflix hired David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en, The Social Network) to direct the series. Netflix clearly has a lot riding on the experiment, but, Willimon says, “We can’t walk around each day in the writers’ room thinking, ‘All the pressure’s on us to determine whether this is a viable model for the future.’”
For writers, the full-season approach offers many advantages, including the opportunity to think about storytelling over a longer arc. And Willimon was grateful to ditch the device of the artificial, early-season cliffhangers. “At times, their only purpose is to make people remember the show a week later and come back. Since we’re delivering all 13 at once ... we could really invest our time in character development and sophisticated storytelling. We hope that’s what makes people want to click on to the next episode.”