Gary Levin, USA TODAY
Netflix is playing politics with television.
The online streaming service barges into big-budget original series with House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey as conniving congressman Francis Underwood. The first 13-episode season is available as of Friday - all at once - in 40 countries to Netflix's 30 million subscribers, and a second season is already promised for early next year.
This month only, the first episode can also be watched free by non-subscribers at netflix.com/houseofcards.
Netflix has built a business streaming movies and TV repeats for $8 a month. Now it's hoping to rival pay-cable channels HBO, Showtime and Starz by offering up exclusive programming as a lure to keep customers paying those monthly fees. Cards alone marks a high-end, $100 million-plus investment, topping rival bids by HBO and AMC; Netflix is also reviving Fox's canceled cult comedy Arrested Development with 14 new episodes in May.
Spacey calls it "a new paradigm," noting he expects "other companies that have done very well as portals for content start to make their own content and want to compete. Whether or not we're a big splash or we're at the beginning of something, I do think that's where things are headed."
And Modi Wiczyk, co-CEO of producing studio Media Rights Capital, says he chose Netflix because of its offer of complete creative control, the unprecedented 26-episode commitment before a single frame had been shot, and for the show's role as trailblazer: "It gave us the opportunity to be the anchor, the defining show," he says, the way The Shield, Mad Men or The Sopranos were for their cable networks. "It was really kind of rare air."
Cards was adapted from a novel by Michael Dobbs (a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher) and a subsequent 1990 BBC miniseries. David Fincher (The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) shepherded the project, directing the first two episodes and creating sprawling film-style sets in Baltimore and on location in Washington. Fittingly, production wrapped on Election Day.
It borrows the British setup, with American tweaks: As a new president takes office, Francis Underwood (Spacey), a South Carolina Democrat and House majority whip who has paid his political dues, is in line for a coveted post as secretary of State (consider him John Kerry). When he's suddenly denied the job, he looks for payback and another ladder to climb, aided by his equally ruthless wife, Claire (Robin Wright). Among his pawns are a naïve but ambitious reporter (Kate Mara) and a misbehaving congressman (Corey Stoll).
The setting of this series is the corridors of Capitol Hill, but "the show isn't about politics; it's about power," insists the show's head writer and executive producer, Beau Willimon (Farragut North, The Ides of March). "Politics just allows us to see master power players at work: people who are experts at manipulation, intimidation, persuasion, seduction and deception. It's like watching grand-master chess players at a game."
Though the initial premise implies a revenge fantasy, "what will be clear to people in the first several minutes of the show is this is a story about ascendancy," Willimon says. "This is a man, really a couple, that is interested in power for power's sake. They are unabashedly self interested, they are remorseless in their self-interest. When you're already in a fairly high office and you want more, and up, where do you go, and how do you get there, and what's the highest you can go?"
Like Scottish actor Ian Richardson, who starred in the original Cards, Spacey has portrayed Shakespeare's Richard III on stage, and he sees similarities in both roles. Each addresses the viewer directly at times, in soliloquy fashion. And each has the unbridled "ambition, politically, although I don't think there'll be as big a body count at the end" of Cards, Spacey says.
Essentially, Underwood has one goal, says Wright: "If you're thinking about dealing with the rules of war, what are those laws? To be feared. (And) if you need to be feared, you have to annihilate everyone else in some sense." Which she does, as a tyrannical boss at a charity and a fiercely protective wife, in a role that Spacey likens to Lady Macbeth.
"But I also think what's quite different about Richard and this show is Richard doesn't have a relationship with a wife he trusts implicitly and whose character is as formidable as he is," he says.
But modern political cynicism may resonate more deeply. "I'm endlessly fascinated by the paradoxical nature of our political systems," Willimon says. "We expect our leaders to be bastions of moral integrity, and then we expect them to be effective. And those things do not mix well in the martini glass. To be an effective leader, you have to be willing to do things that most people would find morally abhorrent. And at the same time (people) want them to be saints."
Spacey finds further parallels in recent reassessments of politicians such as Lyndon B. Johnson. "Yeah, he was ruthless, he was a bastard, he was a manipulator, but he got three civil-rights bills passed," he says.
"We have seen over the last four years the most ineffectual congress in the history of the United States," says Spacey. So "it will be very interesting for an audience to observe a character who gets (stuff) done. For them, the question will be, do the ends justify the means?"
What has changed since the four-hour British miniseries first aired, spawning two sequels?
"Certainly starting from 2000 on, people have been a lot more politically conscious," Willimon says. "It doesn't mean they are more politically sophisticated, but they're more engaged. There are moments veering (between) consensus and deep polarization; they see the virtues of political system, but more often its flaws."
And perhaps a bigger change is in the media's coverage of politics as a 24/7 sport, "and not even just the media; everyone has a phone, everyone is a journalist," Willimon says.
Unlike her British counterpart, Mara's Zoe Barnes is "working at a time when print journalism is very much up in the air, and struggling with how it will be as relevant as it once was. She's naïve, but she's savvy, and she's taking chances. She throws her journalistic ethics out the window, and it works. Some people lose their careers as a result of that. Others are where they are because they're doing things they're not supposed to do."
Another first for Spacey
Cards marks Spacey's first lead TV role, though he grew up watching the tube, back when standalone episodic television was designed for viewers with "short attention spans." (The Wild Wild West was a favorite, he says.)
But since a string of movie hits that included L.A. Confidential, The Usual Suspects and American Beauty, he has been drawn to the theater, running London's Old Vic, and now television. "As studios moved further and further away from making movies I was involved with in the '90s," he says, TV become a more hospitable home "if you want to explore complexity and you want to have really interesting characters to play and plot lines to go off in different directions."
Cards' choice of a non-traditional TV home prompted changes in the usual marketing model. Instead of a blanket ad campaign that began weeks before its debut, Cards has been recommended to Netflix's subscribers who've watched similar types of movies and TV shows, and is being promoted with a more traditional campaign that starts today, including the free episode for non-subscribers.
And Netflix doesn't care whether viewers flock in droves to the show right away, as a commercial TV network must. The company only hopes that they show up in sufficient numbers over the long haul. Other networks "have a lot of pressure to get people to watch in a narrow time frame," says chief content officer Ted Sarandos. "We don't think that's conducive to making great television."
At Wednesday's New York premiere, he called Cards "the first series created for the on-demand generation." But the risk in the all-at-once strategy is that viewers can sign up for a free month-long trial at netflix.com, watch all 13 episodes and then quit without paying a penny.
And the Netflix model caters to the binge viewing that TV fans crave: "We want people immediately when they finish a chapter to want to go to the next one," Willimon says.
"It seems that's the way people are consuming their entertainment these days, in big blocks. So it shows you audiences do have a long attention span," adds Spacey.
Whether it's long enough to sustain Cards beyond two seasons is a question only Netflix can answer: Unlike other TV shows, the streaming service does not use Nielsen ratings as a report card. Instead, it can easily (and privately) track what, when and how each of its subscribers watches.
"We've known for a long time where we want Hour 26 to be," Willimon says. "Whether or not we have privilege of going to a third season, or fourth or fifth, there will be a certain completeness to our story ... and a door open should we have the opportunity to walk through it."