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‘House of Cards’ – What Other Stories Could Be Told?

'House of Cards' - What Other Stories Could Be Told?

HOUSE OF CARDS, as most know by now, is Netflix’s ambitious $100 million, two season gamble, jumping into scripted programming. In terms of budgeting, the gamble isn’t as risky as one thinks if they break it down.

At an average of $3.8 million per episode, that puts CARDS in line with HBO’s GAME OF THRONES. It’s also notable the episode lengths range from 48 to 52 minutes. A length that is comparable to AMC’s MAD MEN. It wouldn’t be surprising if CARDS doesn’t find a second and third life offline. Increasingly known as the place to binge on a range of TV from the last 50 years, it would further cement Netflix’s place in the TV food chain.

The gamble is in releasing all 13 episodes in one shot. No building up of buzz from one episode to the next. No water cooler speculation of who shot who and why. No avoiding of spoilers by anyone that burned through season one.

Business and audience strategy aside, HOUSE OF CARDS is ambitious storytelling. David Fincher, Kevin Spacey and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings are crafting a show that’s not just cynically designed to be binge watched to rack up subscribers and collect audience data, they’ve truly put the focus on telling a story that can’t be resolved in 90 minutes.

Hastings said as much in a quote that was referred to in a CARDs writeup in Ad Age:

“Imagine if books were always released one chapter per week, and were only briefly available to read at 8 p.m. on Thursday,” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said in a letter to shareholders last week. “And then someone flipped a switch, suddenly allowing people to enjoy an entire book, all at their own pace. That is the change we are bringing about. That is the future of television.”

Broken down as chapters instead of episodes, the producers have followed the path that has made HBO, Showtime and AMC critical darlings.

A consistent, legitimate complaint against network television is that the constraints on ad supported, ratings dependent dramatic storytelling, is that characters disappear and/or are underserved constantly. Dangling plotlines and contradictory arcs can turnoff viewers, turning fans into casual watchers. It only takes one or two episodes with a few major missteps to tune out and move on to another show. Leveraging the strengths of the format, CARDS echoes a comfort with multiple characters and plotlines its peers MAD MEN, BREAKING BAD and GAME OF THRONES have. Characters can remain at the periphery and still be relevant because the creators have time and the space to move them in and out of the story.

Even more important though, it gives the story room to explore broad themes including Money vs. Power, Corporate Influence and Class with depth and specificity (how many other shows could brilliantly use an Education Bill as a plot device as CARDS did?).

CARDS’ Machiavellian Francis Underwood, played by Spacey, says early on, “Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that falls apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn’t see the difference.” This encapsulates the moral complexities and shades the ethical questions at the heart of American politics.

The influence of money on politics has been a primary concern going back centuries. It has been one of the dominant threads of the last 15 years after McCain-Feingold and the emergence of Super PACS.

At critical junctures, CARDS reinforces often that it’s not the money that matters, it’s what is behind the money that counts. The ability to move chess pieces around and play the long game is the key to power. Which becomes a major turning point in the series, putting Underwood’s plans in jeopardy.

As a real world example, once the ballots were counted, the electoral college apportioned, the 2012 election itself quickly moved away from the question of money as a direct influence.

It instead moved to a story about how Obama’s machine was much more in tune with the trajectory of the country and electorate, and how out of touch the GOP had become. So blind to their own biases, the GOP didn’t dare to deny the inherent truth of their own numbers.

Now Obama is taking that same machine and repurposing it to actively campaign and advocate not for reelection, but for his agenda and philosophy. What the effect on politics will be, no one knows. However, it very much reads like Obama and his team have a better understanding of the world they live in, than the Democrats who were trounced by the GOP in 1994 and floundered in the following years to respond.

Having watched all of CARDS, I ponder less who as a black writer/producer could pull off such a story, than ask what kind of stories would lend themselves to the same treatment. What stories can be told that both entertain and lend themselves to creating a dialogue.

A focus on Black stories has traditionally been more on filling in the gaps of history and representation than using those stories to raise questions and explore the complexity of Black life and life in general.

Imagine a similar take set in current day Liberia or South Africa. Imagine a Shakespearean Richard III take on the career of a Clarence Thomas like figure. It would likely be expensive and a hard sell, but a story using W.E.B. Dubois’ split from the NAACP in the 1930s over a nationalistic vs. integrationist approach could be a great lens to delve into present issues with fresh eyes.

Even more ripe to be plucked, I would say, are the 1970s and 1980s. The emergence of Black politicians was a harbinger of great things to come with the passage of historic Civil Rights legislation.

By the 1990s, the results were decidedly mixed, with Black politicos and leaders firmly entrenched in their positions of power and influence, some would be hailed as visionary, others as being no better than those they replaced. From navigating a weak economy in the 1970s, to the election of Reagan, to the crack epidemic, to the rise of a post Civil Rights black middle class, to the failure of some to hand over reigns to–let alone train–a newer generation, the ground is indeed fertile for storytellers to dig in.

This Article is related to: Features



PLEASE STOP PROMOTING HOUSE OF CARDS!!! The British version of House of Cards features Penny Guy as an African American woman in the series. Why did they DELETE her ethnicity from that role??


"when you remove the old model of having to produce six to 22 weekly episodes, many seasons don't actually have a compelling reason to be six to 22 hours. Almost every television season contains a lot of redundancy, or at least repetition, within a season, even totally serialized seasons with no time-outs for standalone stories" [,,,] "An actual re-thinking of TV storytelling may require re-thinking whether some of these stories need to be done in the form of a TV season at all, as opposed to a long movie that tells the same story without all the repetition and re-statement endemic to the episodic TV format. Or maybe we'll have alternate cuts, like the TV and theatrical versions of Scenes From a Marriage – make a 13-episode TV season and also prepare a taut 180-minute version for people who want to experience the same story in a single sitting" […] "If the story of, say, Homeland season 1 were a movie, it would probably be about 150 minutes" ~ Jaime Weinman

I opened with those words of wisdom to address the arguments of Miles Ellison and Charles Judson (below).

Miles' basic argument/question is who would actually watch "those" stories involving black people. That's a standard and valid question that has been debated on several fronts. In support of his statement, he said the Wire's rating were low because it wasn't the kind of entertainment "people" wanted to watch. "If "people" aren't interested in that kind of complexity, it will limit the stories that "people" will try to tell ~ Miles

Now I don't know who "those people" are that Miles is referring to but I understand the gist of his argument. On the other hand, after reading all of Charles comments, I've come to believe he's coming from a totally different perspective.

He's not concerned — in this "debate" — with the standard arguments of who, when, what and how, his basic fire and desire can be found in a few words. I believe he's saying, lets just concentrate on telling a damn good stories — first and foremost — and then let the rest of the chips fall where they may.

"It would likely be expensive and a hard sell, but…." […] "stories can be told that both entertain and lend themselves to creating a dialogue." […] "Lets tell those stories" […] "Maybe that story never makes it to the big screen, but maybe it becomes a graphic novel, or a series of plays ( or simply just a damn good… well written story that will inspire similar stories and "deeper" conversations). ~ Charles Judson

Miles Ellison

The question is who would actually watch those other stories involving black people? And can the recent imperative to turn stories about iconic black figures into outright distortions or vehicles for the aggrandizement of white nobodies be eliminated? The Wire was stone-cold genius with 3 dimensional diverse black characters and interesting storytelling. It went virtually unwatched for 5 seasons.


From a business approach, I can appreciate the gamble House of Cards is making; but I dont know if one show alone is enough to get people pay for a subscription – unless Netflix made the first 3 episodes available for free or something along those lines – but it is enough to keep my loyalty as a costumer for a while. I just finished the first season – it took about a week – and loved it. I'd much rather prefer to watch a series in blocks of 2 or 3 episodes at a time than wait 1 week for a new installment. The details are fresher in you mind when you binge.

As to Charles' question about what kind of black story lines might fit best into this character driven ensemble format, I think a dramatic retelling of The Civil Rights Movement could work. Yea, I know its historical, but they could go some many places with it. Every season could cover a decade. The characters could range from A. Philip Randolph to Jimi Hendrix… or go earlier.


Charles, bear with me while I sing Sam Cooke's song. "I was born by the river in a little tent, and just like the river I've been running ever since. It's been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will."

Actually Charles, I was raised 5 blocks from the Mississippi river, but I have been running – away – from that place ever since. But I used that song to illustrate my feelings while reading this piece. I mean, I read it over five time in an attempt to find your central point. So I was wondering when a change was gonna come.

You opened with Netflix's ambitious marketing effort and then proceeded to tell us about the finer details of the House of Cards. So I'm thinking… when is he going to tie this in with the cinema of the African diaspora… I know a change gotta come?

Well, although this article exceeded 1000 words, I believe you central point didn't hit home until there were less than 300 words to the finish-line. Then you fired your cannon:

"Having watched all of CARDS, I ponder less who as a black writer/producer could pull off such a story, than ask what kind of stories would lend themselves to the same treatment. What stories can be told that both entertain and lend themselves to creating a dialogue"

Okay, now I am really perplexed. You're asking for stories that encompasses the "same treatment"… and both entertain and lend themselves to creating a dialogue. And wait, btw, forget about the color of writers/producers.

Same treatment? Creating a dialogue? Excuse me, but those words forced me to read the article over and over again. I mean, "same treatment" as what? And, What dialogue? Is this a case of having your cake and eating it too?

I am suggesting that in order to be "the same" one has to do the same. I don't think it's wise to discount, dilute or minimize any of the factors that enables House Of Cards to be in the position it presently finds itself. So are you referring to the same budget, same marketing plan, same business model, same entertainment value, a similar delivery of the storyline, same type of dialog or the same quality team of writers and actors? And oh, forget about the color of the directors/producers, right?

Granted, it's great to wish upon a star and inspire conversation, but ambiguity pales in comparison to reality.

In short, what were you really trying to say with this piece?

Monique a Williams

We are truly in the golden age of television. I'm looking forward to taking this show in on a snowy weekend.

J Bernard

"David Fincher, Kevin Spacey and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings are crafting a show that's not just cynically designed to be binge watched to rack up subscribers and collect audience data, they've truly put the focus on telling a story that can't be resolved in 90 minutes…Broken down as chapters instead of episodes, the producers have followed the path that has made HBO, Showtime and AMC critical darlings."

Exactly what is the problem here? Is Mr. Judson BRAND NEW to the idea of watching television? Has he not heard of daytime soap operas? Primetime soaps? Miniseries? Serialized storytelling in general? What in the name of all get out is so "cynical" about storytelling in the modern age that dates back to Charles Dickens? Has he ever head of "Rich Man, Poor Man"? "Shogun"? "Holocaust"? "Roots"? How about going back to "QB VII" in the early 70's? Over-generalize much, Judson? The only big difference here (all business considerations aside) is that all the episodes are being released at one time. Mr. Judson really needs a primer in television/broadcast history before writing about it.

"Imagine a similar take set in current day Liberia or South Africa."

One could look at any of the number of tv shows on African networks that normally reside on one's cable provider…if one can find them.

EVA WROTE: "It is no secret the Netflix's streaming service has taken a hit in recent years. "

Not exactly true, while it is true more competition has hit the marketplace, Netflix has been outperforming subscriber forecasts and earning expectations. From CNN Money: "Investors were pleasantly surprised by the number of new U.S. streaming subscribers. Netflix (NFLX) signed up 2.05 million in the fourth quarter, above the range the company predicted last quarter. That brings total U.S. streaming subscriber additions to 5.48 million for 2012. In total, Netflix now has 27.2 million U.S. streaming subscribers and another 6.1 million in global markets. Netflix's DVD-by-mail subscriptions continue to decline, falling 380,000 in the U.S. to about 8.2 million."

Eva also wrote: "House of Cards was a genius choice for Netflix to hang their hat on. In the original, the story only uses politics as a backdrop and a means to explore the ambitions of the character." — Genius is the correct word. And the 2013 House of Cards is as mesmerizing as the BBC original.


Kevin Spacey did the lobbying movie. American back room political deals play out on national television more than any other country. I don't see why they remade this British work. We just witnessed a billion dollar election campaign and how the poorest constituents seek to claim equal share ownership as international corporations. College sports, indentured servitude, and why people with meaningless blue collar jobs think they deserved to be paid more than athletes who sell out arenas, bring in millions of household viewers, and stimulate local/state economies all over the country. The age gap in the non-monolithic black community supports adults banding together to admonish adolescents whom statistics of achievement blow preceding generations away in almost every category. How about how hip hop is panned primarily because the caricature of the Gangsta rapper and the plot device of overcoming adversity has been setup as the default straw man for all that is wrong with black people. Why is the advancement of white women inspiration to black women but the advancement of white men seem to have no effect on black men? What is the opposite of a futurist and how does those prone to nostalgia contribute to the world we wake up in? How do those living in a post-racial world justify adhering invisible lines of demarcation that declares the city, county, state, and country you live in but refuses to aknowledge the differences in real blood lines? Urban Politicians who come from the south or born in districts where no blacks have held a seat. Fortune 500 companies links to child sex slavery. Why sex sells everything even God?


I think the gamble Netflix took on The House of Cards is even less risky than you indicate in this article.
A- it is no secret the Netflix's streaming service has taken a hit in recent years. They've lost a ton of A-list content, it has competition with Amazon Prime, studios are simply not making movies available for streaming the way they used to, and Hulu is biting into the tv market. So they need to do something about streaming content to maintain a customer base that they'd been hemorrhaging.
B- They have data on the viewing patterns of their streaming customers. I can tell you that most people I know who have Netflix, will binge watch episodes of tv shows that Netflix has in their catalog, especially stuff that you they didn't catch during first run. So the idea of people watching a show straight through episode after episode is most likely a proven model for them.

C- they picked a darned good property to remake. The original British version of House of Cards is outstanding. I've seen it twice over the past 10 years. The lead character is amoral and charismatic and the show tells ripping good story.

Which brings me to the content of the article. I absolutely agree that is is something that could be parlayed to tell stories that prominently feature black characters and shine the light on the complexity those people's life. But what would never work, imo, is some overly earnest look at black life or black history. At the end of the day, tv needs to entertain, not jut inform. If you are going to have someone invest as many as 13 hours on watching single narrative, then you have to want to keep them coming back for more. As I mentioned above, House of Cards was a genius choice for Netflix to hang their hat on. In the original, the story only uses politics as a backdrop and a means to explore the ambitions of the character. The appeal of the story, and what kept me watching, is in how the main character maneuvered people around him. On the one hand you wanted him to get taken down but on the other you wanted him to come out on top. Kinda of like how I feel about Walter White on Breaking Bad.


Great great article with some really discussion worthy ideas that you bring up and dilute super well.


Such a thought provoking, solid essay. Raising &reflecting, needed community inquiry. Thank you.


The British version is better and its lead actor kicks Kevin Spacey's ass up and down the block with one well appointed sneer.

Adam Scott Thompson

Yours are the questions I keep asking. Why can't we?

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