The first episode of House of Cards, Netflix's risky, $100 million foray into original programming, opens — rather ominously — with the sound of a car crash. On a normal series, such a choice would seem to be tempting the fate of the cancellation gods. But House of Cards isn't a normal series (though it almost was, according to reports that HBO, AMC, and Showtime were involved in a bidding war for the show). This show can't be canceled, and its first season is arriving fully formed for audiences to watch and dissect at the pace they choose. If House of Cards proves to be a catastrophe with audiences, it's a catastrophe that Netflix is fully committed to.
It's easy to see why Netflix chose House of Cards as its flagship original series (not counting last year's Norwegian crime dramedy Lilyhammer, which was a Netflix exclusive in the United States but aired on NRK1 in Norway.) From a business perspective, the show has all the promise and ambition of its Machiavellian main character. House of Cards is loosely based on the highly acclaimed BBC miniseries of the same name — also available on Netflix — moving the political intrigue across the pond to Congress and swapping in Kevin Spacey for the original series' Ian Richardson. The first two episodes were directed by The Social Network's David Fincher, who also serves as an executive producer, and the show was developed and written by Beau Willimon, who earned an Oscar nomination last year for writing The Ides of March.
House of Cards should be judged on its own merits as a TV series — but as always, the medium is the message, and any discussion of House of Cards needs to begin with how audiences will watch it. On Friday, the 13 episodes that compose the "first season" of House of Cards will simultaneously be posted to Netflix, allowing users to determine the pace at which they'll watch the show. This is an unprecedented strategy for a first-run series, but it's directly tied to the viewing habits of Netflix users for comparable TV shows. As Netflix chief content advisor Ted Sarandos notes at The Associated Press, binge-watching TV — particularly high-end TV dramas — is the new normal for a growing number of viewers; when Netflix posted the second season of AMC's The Walking Dead, nearly 200,000 people watched all 13 episodes within 24 hours.
Netflix, like Facebook, has managed to get its millions of users to voluntarily reveal an extraordinary amount of of data, and the release strategy for House of Cards is undoubtedly based on a careful analysis of viewing habits weighed against the benefits and costs of the approach. But from a critic's perspective, those costs are still disconcerting. For one, it makes it impractical to review House of Cards episode-by-episode, which tends to be the best approach for tackling comparable shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or Homeland. It un-levels the playing field for viewers, who will watch at completely different paces — eliminating the ability for House of Cards to generate whatever we're calling "water cooler chatter" these days on an episode-by-episode basis. And — most worryingly, from my perspective — it encourages the kind of binge-viewing that can make a show feel less like a show and more like a 13-hour movie, with a 13-hour sequel on the horizon. Viewers could decide to treat House of Cards like any other prestige drama and watch one episode every Sunday for the next 13 weeks — but they won't.
I'm particularly concerned about this final point because House of Cards has lots of potential, but — despite the best efforts of everyone involved — it can't possibly stand up to shows like Mad Men or Breaking Bad. That would be an unfairly high standard if the series weren't aiming so high, and if Netflix viewers hungry for great drama didn't literally have the option of switching over to Mad Men or Breaking Bad to get their fix. Unlike those shows, which improved over the course of weeks (and eventually years), House of Cards is being presented to us as a fully formed season of television — and based on the two episodes screened for critics, it's a season that might've benefited from the scrutiny offered by a weekly audience, and a subsequent course correction.
What is the show about, you ask? Kevin Spacey stars as the majority whip of the House of Representatives, who embarks on a grand scheme to gain power after he's passed over for secretary of state by the president-elect. In a stylistic gambit that already feels passé, Spacey's Rep. Frank Underwood spends much of his time addressing the camera in Richard III-esque soliloquy. Unfortunately, the Shakespearean allusions don't stop there; Underwood casually drops phrases like "That's how you devour a whale. One bite at a time" and "I love her more than sharks love blood" like he's a retired sea captain who somehow stumbled into a congressional seat. House of Cards' other major players include Robin Wright, who plays his similarly ruthless wife, and Kate Mara, who plays an ambitious young reporter who makes a devil's deal with Underwood. House of Cards begins with the bold premise that politics can be corrupt, then spends its first two hours jackhammering that point into viewers' minds.
Director Steven Soderbergh recently called House of Cards "the most beautiful thing you've ever seen on a screen," and when it comes to television, he's not far off. But TV audiences have proven that they can't be won over by visuals alone; see AMC's gorgeous but empty The Killing, which rankled critics and audiences alike with lousy writing. House of Cards has a lot more going for it than The Killing does — and I'm crossing my fingers that the remaining 11 episodes of House of Cards find a way to introduce some nuance into what's currently an utterly predictable morality tale. But if House of Cards continues down the road it seems to be on, a bigger question about the series will likely define the future of Netflix's original content: What kind of apathy will House of Cards earn? Audiences might watch the underwhelming first episodes and say, "well, it's all here. I might as well keep watching." Or they might flip to one of the dozens of better films and TV series that Netflix has to offer.
For what it's worth, I think every Netflix user should give House of Cards a try, if only to participate in the grand experiment. GQ reports that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, a passionate advocate for streaming video since Netflix was almost exclusively a DVD-by-mail rental company, believes that once audiences "give up the artificiality of managed dissatisfaction" — that is, having to wait to watch the things they want to watch — they'll "never miss it." He may be right. But even if Netflix can topple the TV distribution models that have stood for decades, it still has work to do before it can equal the caliber of the shows those old models deliver.