Netflix is having a moment. On January 23, the home entertainment platform proudly announced an 8% increase in revenue in the last quarter of 2012. The next day, the company’s stock soared to a 43% increase, the largest single-day gain since the company went public more then a decade ago. All of a sudden, Netflix was looking like a huge success, a far cry from last year when CEO Reed Hastings was ridiculed last year for initiating a big hike in membership fees, by separating the platform’s DVD rentals from its streaming service. At that time, many predicted the death of Netflix. Now, people are calling it not just the future of home entertainment – but maybe its present.
Which makes it good timing for Netflix to release its second and most high-profile original series yet, House of Cards, which debuted all 13 original episodes last Friday. The show features big-time Hollywood players like director David Fincher and star Kevin Spacey, but its form is made for television: there may not be enough of a story here to justify driving to the theater, finding parking, paying $11.50 for a movie ticket, and sitting through some awful commercials and trailers first – but for TV, it’s just engaging enough. Unfortunately, it’s also cynical, depressing, and ultimately frustrating in its failures to follow the basic rules of storytelling.
This series follows the scheming machinations of the Majority Whip of the U.S. House of Representatives as he seeks revenge on a White House that passed him over for a key cabinet appointment. Its assumption of our interest in its story relies on the notion that viewers want to see all of the back room intrigue of the political process, an inglorious system that has been described by Washington insiders as akin to seeing “how the sausage is made.”
That phrase was used by another show that many Netflix subscribers may be watching right now; Netflix recently came to an agreement with Warner Brothers to stream The West Wing, and many subscribers – like myself – have taken this opportunity to reacquaint themselves with Leo, Toby, Josh, C.J., Sam, Donna, and President Bartlet. The comparison between the two shows is in many ways unfair. West Wing is brimming with pre-9/11, Clinton-era optimism, represented with the warm glow of soft lighting and a cast of characters who value friendship and idealism over political careerism. House of Cards depicts Washington as something lower than a sewer, a city filled with primitive, mutated creatures who exist to satisfy only their basic urges – sex, money, and power. It is teleivision noir – its morality is cynical, and its characters converse in the shadows. Its men are philanderers and addicts; its women prostitutes and gold diggers. Even Kevin Spacey’s face, now droopy with middle age, seems to hide his skeletons in its folds.
I’m three episodes in, and I have yet to find a single redeemable character in the show. As Congressman Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey slithers through the Washington scene, bent on destroying a new presidential administration (of his own party) by planting stories with Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a young, ambitious blogger, manipulating his colleagues, and playing coy with the administration’s chief-of-staff – all without breaking a sweat. His wife (Robin Wright) has coldly fired half the staff from her non-profit, the Clean Water Initiative, and we’re not quite sure why.
Most of House of Cards feels like well-worn territory. We have seen behind the curtain of Washington in other films and series, and while this particular type of cynicism may fit the mood of the country, it does not make for particularly dynamic television. Each character seems driven by the same thirst for power, and so none of them stand out. In other words, if everyone’s evil, then no one is evil. If there is anything new that House of Cards brings to the viewing public, it’s the symbiotic corruption of politicians and the press. Barnes’s political machinations at the fictional Washington Herald held my interest more than Underwood’s in Congress. The scene in which her boss, frustrated with her frequent appearances on cable news, punishes the young journalist – “No TV for a month!” – provided the only real spark of originality of the first three episodes.
But the DC newsroom has been an typical setting for films about American politics, and House of Cards rightly pays homage to the best film of its kind: All the President’s Men. In one scene, Zoe even refers to Underwood, her source, as Deep Throat. But the biggest comparisons are the ones left unsaid – the glaring contrast between that film’s Washington Post, a force for delivering justice to a political system predicated on lies, and the fictional Herald, where journalists are more interested in advancing their careers and stepping on their colleagues than delivering sound news. The mise-en-scene tells the tale; in All the President’s Men, the newsroom was filled with bright lighting to provide a contrast to the dark, backroom political deals that Woodward and Bernstein were working to uncover. In House of Cards, the shadows in the Herald’s newsroom are accentuated, as if to suggest that even the fact checkers have their dark side.
While House of Cards goes into considerably darker territory than recent political film dramas, it continues the trend of cable dramas centered around anti-heroes. Their names are Tony Soprano, Walter White, Dexter Morgan, and Don Draper, who trade in what Alyssa Rosenberg has called “transgressive badassery.” She noted in a January 2 piece that TV audiences are obsessed with the kind of coolness associated with villainous behavior, suggesting that fans of Breaking Bad, who are “schooled in the lesson that transgression and violence are admirable, are failing to read the clear signs from Vince Gilligan that it’s time Walter White faced his comeuppance, whether in the form of cancer, violent death, or imprisonment and shame.”
House of Cards is not a violent show, at least not in the first three episodes. But the transference of this “transgressive badassery” – the guilty pleasure of seeing someone manipulate the system, as we wish we could do, without any moral considerations – to Congress is both inevitable and deeply disturbing. In the Watergate Era, a deep mistrust was sown between the government and the people, but at least we still believed in heroes. We lionized people like Woodward and Bernstein to the point that both of them built long careers off of that single achievement, made movies about them, gave them awards. Now, if House of Cards is an indication, the idea of heroism has become incompatible with our view of federal government, and that is a disturbing proposition.
It also dings the show’s entertainment value. The aforementioned badasses – the Sopranos, Whites, and Drapers of the world – were at least trying to do the right thing at times. They were flawed people searching for the right path in an even more flawed world, which made them sympathetic. I’m having trouble finding anyone to root for in House of Cards. It is as if the show’s creators have forgotten that the audience needs an entry point, someone who represents their interests. Perhaps the show’s cynical perspective is that our interests are represented – that we are just as careerist and power-hungry as the characters on the show. But that’s tough to get an audience to swallow – that we’re not very good people, either – and it didn’t work on me. I still demand accountability from my leaders. I demand goodness from my civic leaders. I don’t ask for perfection, but I at least want to see them strive for it. House of Cards seems to be operating on a different plane, and until it produces anything resembling a hero, I’m having a hard time throwing my support behind it.