TV's next great antihero won't be on HBO, the cable network that introduced us to Tony Soprano. He also won't be on FX or AMC, the homes of Vic Mackey, Don Draper and Walter White. In fact, he won't be on TV at all.
That's because Frank Underwood, the ambitious U.S. Congressman played with a biting Southern drawl by Kevin Spacey on House of Cards, is trying to do for Netflix what his morally gray forebears did for their respective networks: put them on the map as a home for great serialized drama.
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Much ink has and will be spilled about the risky gamble Netflix is taking getting into the original series game. Unlike the online streaming service's other buzzy launch — the long-awaited revival of Arrested Development — House of Cards doesn't have a ton of built-in fan loyalty, even if you include those few viewers who fondly remember the 23-year-old British miniseries upon which this new project is based. And yet Netflix has reportedly spent $100 million and made an unprecedented two-season commitment to land this big fish, executive-produced and stylishly directed by Hollywood heavyweight David Fincher and written by Ides of March scribe Beau Willimon.
The good news is this: All the money is on the screen. The well-written and expertly nuanced performances are all beautifully shot. But is this high-quality project the next generation of TV? No and yes. In the early episodes critics were able to screen, the story — Spacey's Underwood is passed over for a Cabinet appointment he'd been promised and vows to ruin the newly elected President because of the betrayal — seems like it would be at home on a cable network. His marriage to Claire (Robin Wright), a power-hungry Lady Macbeth type, anchors the show's treachery in a strong, if unorthodox love. With her support, Frank cozies up to fellow lawmakers just before he secretly skewers and discredits them in the press via Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), an eager young journalist willing to sell her soul to Frank for the juicy stories he wants her to print.
What is next-gen, however, is how Netflix wants viewers to consume the content. (The entire first season is available now.) "We aspire to create shows that you can't get enough of, shows so rich and so consuming that you lose yourself in them," Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos told reporters at the Television Critics Association conference last month. "We are programming for the On Demand generation. They will tell us how many episodes they want to watch. They are going to tell us what time to watch them, and they are going to tell us what device they want to watch them on."
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Indeed, Spacey says the binge-watching phenomenon is part of the reason he became interested in considering TV projects. "If you ask anybody now, 'What'd you do over the weekend?' they're like, 'Oh, I stayed in and watched three seasons of Breaking Bad,'" he tells TVGuide.com. "Now audiences are incredibly drawn to complexity and to long plot lines and arcs. ... I had an incredible decade of work [in film] in the '90s, and then things began to shift a little bit — the emphasis is on different kinds of films. So it's made sense to me that you've watched over these last 10 years more and more actors, writers, directors starting to say, 'If we're not going to get a chance to explore these kind of themes or characters in film, then television is a great place to land.'"
Even though he's not "on" TV, Spacey's power-hungry Underwood feels right at home in today's television landscape. The audience's introduction to the character is perhaps darker and more nihilistic than almost anything you ever saw on The Sopranos. There is one difference, however: While Frank is performing this potentially off-putting act, he's explaining his worldview directly to the audience — that is, to the camera. There is a lot of voiceover in House of Cards.
"I think it's a strong choice. It's certainly unorthodox," Willimon says of breaking the fourth wall, which is one of the aspects he chose to retain from the original miniseries. "When your hero or antihero speaks directly to the audience, suddenly they become active participants as opposed to passive observers. It almost forces them to have an opinion. And sometimes their opinion conflicts with their expectations." Spacey likens the experience to Shakespeare's Richard III, which he recently played in a globe-trotting production. "I had the experience in 12 cities around the world.. [of] looking in people's faces and discovering the relish and the glee and the kind of excitement that an audience has about being let in on something that they don't think anybody else is being let in on," he says.
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Naturally, Frank's corruption spreads. Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), a loutish third-term Philadelphia congressman who's an embarrassment to his party, becomes Frank's first pawn on the Hill. He also ensnares Zoe, who uses Frank's leaks of key pieces of legislation to go from gossip blogger to front-page star.
And at first blush, Claire, who runs an altruistic clean-water nonprofit, seems to be nothing more than a very supportive wife. But she has her own agenda. "To be powerful you have to be feared, and what does that entail, to be the feared? You have to annihilate everybody else to gain another rung on the ladder," Wright says, sounding very Macbeth-like herself. "That's just classic laws of war. It's old, it's archaic, that tenet. That is what Francis has built and we are part of it together."
Although Willimon insists he's not trying to paint everyone in Washington with the corruption brush, he does argue that, unlike our nation's current Congress, Frank gets things done. "[Do] I personally want to see more Francis Underwoods in Washington? That's a tricky question," Willimon continues. "I, just like anyone, abhor a lot of the things he does, but I appreciate and respect his own personal honesty. There's something refreshing about the character who says, 'I am unapologetically self-interested. I want power for power's sake. I'm not going to try to hide that from you and what I offer you in return is progress. This is what effectiveness looks like. Decide for yourself whether you condone or condemn the way in which I achieve progress.'"
Whether or not Netflix's big bet on House of Cards indeed creates a new definition of what TV will be in the future, Willimon has created a character that celebrates the villains of the past and will certainly strike a chord with viewers of television present. "I don't know what that is that draws [us] to those people," Willimon says. "But if I had to speculate, I would say they give us permission to indulge in the darker aspects of ourselves that we simply can't sustain in our everyday lives. ... We all have some of that darkness in us, and when we get to see a character who engages in that sort of behavior to the extreme, they're doing for us what we can't do ourselves."
All 13 episodes of House of Cards first season are available now on Netflix.
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