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.