Apr 21, 2013

House of Cards indeed: does the ‘Netflix model’ diminish television as art?

Many have claimed that House of Cards will revolutionise TV, but it has all but faded from cultural consciousness before its season would have even ended had it aired in the traditional weekly manner. Is the streaming service creating a television landscape in which the forgettable is supreme and the supreme goes unseen?

Kevin Spacey failing to properly apply nail polish in House of Cards.

One of the reasons The Simpsons will prove to be, in this writer’s haughty, look-at-me-I’m-a-TV-blogger opinion, television’s greatest achievement is because it’s almost impossibly enduring. Those classic seasons just don’t age; even a generally under-appreciated episode like “A Streetcar Named Marge” only increases in stature the more I revisit it (if you don’t cackle hysterically at this The Birds reference at The Ayn Rand School for Tots — genius in itself — then I can nought but pity you).

The reason I mention The Simpsons is because of how progressively it became so brilliant and iconic. It started as brief little sketches on The Tracey Ullman Show, blustered through a good but uneven first season before finding its feet in its second, and now it’s probably the most oft-quoted body of work since Zombie Shakespeare wrote a bunch of plays. Even its increasing detachment from the original characters and persistent refusal to die can’t sully its legacy. But if you turn the clock back, even at its peak the show struggled to please everyone — thankfully, those dissenters’ ridiculous opinions on an episode like “Itchy & Scratchy Land” live on in the internet’s memory.

Which is not to say that time makes a show untouchable. But time is the great judge of art, and anything that flares its brightest overnight is likely to fade just as fast. Netflix’s foray into original programming has most famously brought us House of Cards, as well as Lilyhammer and the just-premiered Hemlock Grove. Each of these shows has followed the ‘Netflix model’, by which the streaming service premiered an entire season at once for subscribers. So why, you may ask, might this be problematic?

Well for a start, I’d be lying if I said it weren’t damn fine business. The rise of streaming in places where it’s more viable to do so — magical lands of myth where data usage is uncapped and joy flows freely through modems into our fingertips — has been meteoric; Netflix is now a massive company with 33 million subscribers and counting. That’s a huge potential audience to whom you can directly market a show, and without advertisers to worry about a show can be free to push boundaries and take risks (though this is something we’ve yet to see happen).

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But artistically, it presents a problem. Binge viewing is a modern luxury. We’ve all sat down with a DVD on a rainy Saturday and powered through an entire season of TV before, so what’s different releasing it for the first time in this manner? Let me put it like this: if you had a chance to spend as much time in the Louvre as you want, you wouldn’t just spend a day, would you? The most renowned collection of art in the world simply can’t be appreciated in a day. I, for one, could spend a day looking at Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana and nothing else. Similarly, you wouldn’t scoff down a delicious meal at a nice restaurant like a 2AM McDonald’s cheeseburger.

The episodic structure of television is designed to breathe. One of the things I noticed watching the perfectly okay House of Cards was how its propulsive plot practically shoved me toward the next episode. The end of each was a breathless plea to keep watching. If I walked away from my computer and thought about an episode, I started to see just how flawed the show was — entertaining, sure, but pointless. What does House of Cards have to say about, well, anything? Power, sex, and journalism are all concepts the show fiddled with but just kind of tosses them aside and goes back to moving pieces around a narrative chessboard.

But who’s talking about House of Cards now? Most everyone who’s seen it has found a way to see it, even in Australia where the chain has been dragged so long it’s practically Tina Arena. For those who haven’t, you have three options: bypass geo-blocking and subscribe to Netflix, wait until May 7 for Foxtel to make the show available in the same manner, or that other option we shan’t discuss. But for all the talk about the show, it’s never truly been about the actual show, just the lustre of David Fincher and Kevin Spacey’s names and the way it was being delivered to us.

If Netflix had released House of Cards in a traditional, weekly manner, we’d still be two episodes away from the season’s ending. Instead of the conversation around the show itself completely dying off, we’d be debating the show’s worth on a weekly basis (to The AV Club’s perpetual credit, they’ve chosen to review the show weekly, and reading Ryan McGee‘s excellent write-ups has greatly helped me to come to realise all of this). While the weekly review/recap mode of TV criticism has its detractors, it’s proof of how a week of discussion can help creators and audiences alike better understand their product; just look at Parks & Recreation, which responded to tepid reactions to its first season and soon became one of TV’s very best shows.

The thing is, when a typical show is written it has to account for all sorts of weird scheduling: fortnights without episodes, pre-emption, how arcs will play out over the course of months, and so on. House of Cards‘ failing was that it couldn’t do that, so what we get is a meandering show that rushes us through some plots while lingering too long on others, happily assuming — often rightly — that viewers won’t notice in their eagerness to find out what happens next. It’s incredibly clever but really quite deceptive, too.

Re-watching some episodes, it struck me how knowing what happens sucks the drama out of the show completely. Without that plot to drive it, it’s little but Kevin Spacey acting like a ham in a wood chipper, Robin Wright having fab hair, and Kate Mara’s cold, dead shark eyes. Would it necessarily have been improved by having to air weekly? Perhaps not. But not doing so has evidently worked in its favour; Netflix says its undisclosed ratings were great (the TV executive equivalent of George Glass) and the show has a higher IMDb rating than Mad Men, a show whose ratings are relatively low but which manages to dominate cultural conversation for months before and after it airs.

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But it’s not a gamble that’s going to pay off every time. The upcoming Arrested Development revival will be a puzzle but a very popular one, with episodes not even being made to watch in any particular order. Eli Roth’s just-dumped Hemlock Grove has been met with scathing reviews; if viewers can even make it through the pilot, there’s little chance they’ll watch the whole season just because it’s there. Also upcoming is Weeds creator Jenji Kohan’s Orange is the New Black, which will be worth a look just for Kate Mulgrew and Natasha Lyonne (“Natasha Lyonne who?”).

House of Cards writer and showrunner Beau Willimon said of his show’s impact, “This is the future, streaming is the future. TV will not be TV in five years from now…everyone will be streaming.” Netflix’s shows are an experiment, to be sure, and maybe it’s too early to say whether or not it’ll be a successful one. Based on the evidence so far, the show got the eyeballs and the hype Netflix wanted, and maybe that’s all they needed. Maybe the whole enterprise will collapse around them. Maybe some original content is waiting around Netflix’s corner to alter the zeitgeist. In the meantime, I suppose they can stick to reviving ones that already have.

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12 thoughts on “House of Cards indeed: does the ‘Netflix model’ diminish television as art?

  1. Symon Geanellos

    One thing that truly annoyed me about Netflix House of Cards is that it had virtually nothing to do with the original House of Cards. It shared a name, and the name of it’s characters, but very little else. It felt more like a gimmick to get peoples attention and ride the coattails of a much more engaging series.

    As for the theme of this article; I think NF-HoC is more of a long movie than a tv series. I tend to agree if you try and poke it, you’ll find it all pretty hollow.

  2. Ian Allen

    The excitement about the Netflix remake of House of Cards is not so much about the show itself, but because it represents a milestone. It is the first time a big budget ($100m+) series has been commissioned outside of the TV/Pay TV model.

    That’s really significant because it provides program makers with a completely new model for funding their productions. While it remains to be seen if this Netflix experiment will prove to be viable in the longer term, the implications are profound.

    House of Cards on Netflix has no advertising. It is a subscription model, so the goal is to attract and keep subscribers, not sell eyeballs to advertisers. This means the shows don’t need to be structured with commercial breaks every 10 minutes. They don’t even need to fit into predetermined timeslots. In fact the whole notion of “appointment” television becomes irrelevant.

    This should lead to a different type of creative freedom and more choices in the kinds of storytelling that become possible. I for one welcome this development.

    1. Laurence Barber

      You’re right, Ian, and this is the problem I have. The focus is on the way Netflix is showing us House of Cards, but the way we watch it isn’t going to make it memorable (if anything less so, in this case, as regular weekly viewing prompts higher attention to, and retention of, detail). It’s absolutely a fascinating experiment within the medium, and I’m still intrigued by how it plays out in the long-term. But it’s still worth looking at its implications three months down the line just as much as it will be a year later.

      The subscription model isn’t, truthfully, all that different to existing cable models in the US. A network like HBO tends to air films when it’s not airing first-run/original content, which is essentially just what Netflix does. The only difference is that Netflix gives choice entirely over to the audience where the likes of HBO just has a variety of channels from which to choose, not unlike the movie package as part of Foxtel.

      But by removing the structure and the destroying the notion of appointment television, as you say, you’re neutering TV as public discourse. What if everything followed this release model and any time you wanted to discuss a show with your friends you couldn’t because everyone was at a completely different point in the season/series? Not everyone has time to watch an entire season in a weekend. So while the Netflix model works great for TV nerds, it’s actually not quite as appealing to your average viewer, I would argue. The excision of ad breaks is a good point, however it’s incredibly easy to watch shows without them if you find creative ways to view them.

      You’re right that it should lead to greater creative freedom, absolutely. But based on what’s come so far, that isn’t happening. There are far more adventurous shows on cable – even NBC’s Hannibal is more outré than any of Netflix’s original series thus far. I think cable networks do a pretty excellent job of staying out of the way of content creators – see HBO and FX’s John Landgraf as the most prescient examples –

  3. Xtian N

    I couldn’t disagree more with the author.
    I’ve been hooked on House of Cards since it was released several months ago. Sure, it’s not a weekly, water-cooler show, but does it need to be?
    The first time I watched the series, like a great book, it was nearly impossible to stop watching each additional episode. I’ve seen it twice through now and I’m convinced it’s one of the best shows ever produced.
    Spacey makes it great, but the storyline, character development, and plot twists are really what make it superb.
    The only way I can describe it to people is…”The Sopranos meets the West Wing” but honestly, it hardly comes close to giving HOC the credit it truly deserves.
    Regardless, I’m patiently waiting for more episodes.
    (Hey Netflix, don’t make us wait too long…)

    1. Laurence Barber

      You should only have until January to wait!

      I agree that the show was highly compulsive viewing. I can’t personally agree with you RE: the storyline and character development, however. I found the story poorly-structured at times. I simply think that too much heed was paid to Claire’s company’s internal affairs, and that the major moment – indeed, the climactic moment of the season – coming in “Chapter 11” was a very strange choice to my mind. It robbed the show of its emotional core in the final two episodes, and while the aftermath was quite chilling, it felt like Willimon was sloppily writing himself out of a corner, particularly when I watched a few eps for a second time. But obviously, your mileage varies.

      I don’t see much of The Sopranos in it, personally, which was a much more meditative show that challenged its anti-hero protagonist, whereas Frank is too much of a steam-roller to be nearly as multi-faceted and compelling as Tony. The character development was also a tad lacking for me, particularly the female characters (Claire and Christina excepted). Mostly Zoe, who was the Karen Cartwright type Byron talked about in his Smash piece last week.

      But obviously I’m not you, so I’m glad that you get as much enjoyment out of the show was you do! I don’t intend it to seem like I didn’t enjoy the show, I thought it was perfectly okay, but it felt soulless and thematically empty to me.

  4. (the other) HR Nicholls

    I don’t really buy the argument. You can’t really praise The Simpsons for its ability to outlive weekly chatter, then base much of your critique around issues related to first-run scheduling. If the show is good enough, it’ll cut through – The Wire has stood the test of time despite low ratings first time around.

    Review-recap is probably one of the most infuriating trends in cultural criticism in the last 20 years. Disconnecting reviewing from the weekly cycle might give more room for interesting criticism.

    1. Laurence Barber

      I think perhaps you’ve misinterpreted the point I was attempting to make with the Simpsons lede. The Wire cut through because of overwhelming critical favour, which is kind of my point. Netflix’s model doesn’t have any need for critical opinion because if they market something correctly, people will show up in droves to watch any old thing. And if they don’t keep watching it, it won’t matter. It has the potential to make quality completely irrelevant to the process–all TV currently is a precarious balance of quality vs. quantity. 30 Rock would never have survived in the way it did without that early flow of Emmys (which also served to increase its ratings, mind). If Girls were critically reviled, it would’ve been cancelled by now.

      I’ll wager that Hemlock Grove won’t make it far because it’s terrible and people won’t watch it as a result. House of Cards got by because it was perfectly okay. No one’s watched Lilyhammer. As I see it at this present moment, there’s little to suggest that Netflix need try to stretch the limits of the medium in any way, shape or form. House of Cards was just following the formula of what prestige drama should be, but it was basically a procedural (I mean, Frank is basically the politician version of Dexter).

      I strongly disagree with you in terms of weekly reviews. Recaps are bad, sure, but they also don’t detract from anything else–they basically just provide a space for people to discuss a show. But some of the best cultural criticism I read comes in the form of episodic reviews. There’s absolutely no reason why an in-depth review of an episode by Todd VanDerWerff can’t be as culturally valuable as an Emily Nussbaum piece in The New Yorker. Shockingly, these things can co-exist.

  5. Dan Barrett

    Even if Girls had been poorly received by critics and/or viewers, there’s still a good chance that it would have reached a second season. That seems to be the point at which HBO give up on a show. How To Make It In America and Enlightened are good similar examples.

    I don’t think you can look to the Netflix model as a sign as to why HoC didn’t reach the artistic heights you wish it had. My understanding is that Netflix offered very few notes to the shows producers. Beau Willimon often made mention of this throughout his interviews promoting the show.

    To blame the distribution model would require the belief that all shows that follow the week to week non-binge model all hold up to critical analysis. The majority of television (just like the majority of anything) is generally subpar. The fact that the very first true Netflix production achieved the level of quality it has is actually pretty outstanding.

    In regards to the story structure of Chapter 11, keep in mind that the structure has been designed for a 20-odd episode run – splitting it into two seasons is actually somewhat of a falsehood structurally. It is a 20(ish) chapter story with a beginning and an end.

    Also, I watched Lilyhammer.

    1. Laurence Barber

      This is true, but if the discourse surrounding the model doesn’t match up to the quality of the programming then I’m going to continue to call bullshit on the idea that it’s revolutionising TV. I’m simply sceptical that Netflix’s model is actually capable of producing anything better than House of Cards. Also, the “revolution!!!” stuff annoys the hell out of me because, frankly, a revolution can’t happen without an intelligent ideology behind it. When one emerges, perhaps I’ll be more open to Netflix’s possibilities as a source of original content.

  6. Reading Digest: Futurama Gets Cancelled Again Edition | Dead Homer Society

    […] House of Cards indeed: does the ‘Netflix model’ diminish television as art? – I can’t say I agree with the basic idea here, that House of Cards (which is fantastic, if dumb, fun) is somehow diminished because people on the internet don’t write about it enough, but this is certainly true: One of the reasons The Simpsons will prove to be, in this writer’s haughty, look-at-me-I’m-a-TV-blogger opinion, television’s greatest achievement is because it’s almost impossibly enduring. Those classic seasons just don’t age; even a generally under-appreciated episode like “A Streetcar Named Marge” only increases in stature the more I revisit it (if you don’t cackle hysterically at this The Birds reference at The Ayn Rand School for Tots — genius in itself — then I can nought but pity you). […]

  7. matt andrews

    Personally I greatly admired Netflix’ House of Cards; while I appreciated the original UK (trilogy of) series, it was utterly outclassed by the US production in every way.

    I rate the US production as promising to be one of the greatest pieces of political drama ever made, so I guess it worked much better for me than for Laurence. I say “promising to be” because it very clearly is only half way through the first season.

    I agree that the space for collective discussion and narrative tension afforded by the paced weekly release of episodes adds a lot to the first release of any series worth talking about; but that’s increasingly a model that’s losing market share as the HoC approach, and/or the typical pirating pattern of grabbing a whole series at once, take over.

    It will be interesting to see whether HBO stick with a weekly release approach or move to series-at-once, after another year or two of the rapid shift from scheduled cable to internet TV.

  8. Damien McBain

    The assumption is that TV is/has been/can be art. That’s a leap I’m not prepared to take!
    Presumably some people enjoy being left at the edge of a cliff for a week at the end of each episode (I’ve never met one such person). I admit to being a rainy-sunday binge viewer.

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