Odds are, if you have checked out the entertainment section of a newspaper recently, you have heard something about House of Cards, Netflix’s first major original series. Perhaps you have heard the fact that in February Netflix released all 13 episodes of the program’s first season at once; or that any number of people watched all 13 episodes in the first weekend (they are known by the flattering term “binge viewers”); or that the quality is quite high—maybe not quite as strong as AMC or HBO, but aspiring to greatness.
The premise, in a nutshell: Kevin Spacey plays Frank Underwood, a House majority whip whose party has just won the White House. During the campaign, the now-President promised Underwood that he would be Secretary of State, but now that the campaign is over, the president has gone with someone else. But Frank is not someone you cross. Neither is his wife Claire (played with ice cold steel by Robin Wright). The two embark on a plot to get even and get ahead.
“House of Cards” originally was a U.K. property starring the fantastically disturbing Ian Richardson as the majority whip—think a twisted Obi-Wan Kenobi. Adapted by writer Beau Willimon, the American version takes from the original not only the basic premise and plot line, but the unusual technique of having Frank speak directly to the audience. For some, that may be a deal breaker. It certainly jars. But much like Frank himself, the technique has a wonderfully insidious way of creeping in and getting comfortable. The viewers become Frank’s co-conspirators, the keepers of his secrets, the ones he talks to, until they are just as seduced as everyone else around him.
The real question is, will consumers be seduced enough by this show not only to start Netflix memberships, but to keep them? By releasing all 13 episodes at once, Netflix seems to have given potential new subscribers an easy way out: One could quite conceivably pay for one month of the service, watch the entire season in that time, cancel the subscription and be out a grand total of $7.99.
Netflix management has said their release-as-a-package approach reflects their desire not to be bound by the tired strategies of network TV. A worthy goal, and who knows, perhaps it will yield the growth for which they hope. Netflix certainly has a TV and film library that is broad enough to be attractive.
But from a buzz-based, water-cooler community point of view, it is hard not to wonder whether Netflix is cutting itself off at the knees. In so many cases, what draws us to a program is the chatter of the community watching it. Look at ABC’s “Scandal,” about a law team that fixes problems for people in Washington, D.C. The show debuted last spring with a short run of seven episodes and had a solid but not spectacular showing. This year, it was given 13 episodes to start and slowly turned up the heat until, suddenly, “Scandal” is now the “it” show, with its dazzling political twistiness and hot, hot, hot relationships bringing water coolers everywhere to a fierce boil.
That is how TV works. It builds a community among its viewers, and the passion of that community draws in others, sometimes even years after the show has ended. HBO’s “The Wire,” about drugs and detectives and politics in the city of Baltimore, was critically acclaimed year after year as it aired, but its audience was always relatively small. Yet its popularity has grown so much since it ended in 2008 that some have argued HBO should consider bringing it back.
By releasing all 13 episodes of “House of Cards” at once, Netflix has in many ways blocked the formation of any sort of community. Those who have not watched the whole season have to keep themselves away from those who have, lest their viewing be spoiled. Those who have watched the whole season wait in frustration for conversation partners with whom they can talk. While a good TV show bonds its audience together like participants on a crazy river-rafting journey, the Netflix approach is more like driving in Los Angeles, each person politely keeping everyone else at a distance. And without communal interest to sustain it, in a few weeks the show could be just an afterthought in the rearview.
It does not help that “House of Cards” doesn’t have many delicious “Oh no, he didn’t!” sorts of moments to linger over. We know from the moment we meet Spacey’s Frank Underwood that he will likely do anything to bring down his opponents. And consequently when over the course of the season he does do just about everything, it is not terribly surprising. Frank and his wife Claire’s sheer force of will to rise above their peers is what makes the show compelling. But their drive is a cool, quiet rage that never quite explodes. Where there should be some bangs, there are instead far too many whimpers.
Netflix has other original series to come this year: the horror-thriller “Hemlock Grove” in April; a new season of the hilarious fan-favorite, cancelled-by-FOX show “Arrested Development” in May; and the women’s prison comedy “Orange is the New Black” in the summer. If “House of Cards” is any indication, each of these shows will at the very least be worth a look. Despite its flaws, “House of Cards” certainly is, especially for political junkies.
I hope that Netflix reconsiders its distribution approach. Even in an era of DVRs, time-shifting shows and three million channels, television continues to serve as an important element of what binds us together. Just check out Twitter when “Glee” or “The Walking Dead” are on; the site explodes with comments and interchange. At its best television is our Homer before the campfire, gathering us and telling us stories of love and war and gods and men. In an era that tends more and more toward the atomistic, the anonymous and isolated, we need those shared experiences more than ever.