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Mr. Arkadin

House of Cards

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Apparently, Netflix will be dropping this series all at once (as they plan to do with ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT). The show is also apparently jaw-droppingly expensive for a television season: $100 million.

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NBooth   

The AV Club:

Netflix’s remake of the British miniseries (itself based on a novel) House Of Cards is at all times a struggle between the virtues of the overripe and the virtues of the spare. It’s a show where the direction—in the first two episodes, it’s by Academy Award nominee David Fincher, one of the handful of people with a legitimate claim to the best director of his generation—is at once haunting and sparse, suggesting without really coming out and saying everything about this world of moral depravation and power lust that the characters live in. Yet at the same time, the scripts (from Beau Willimon, who adapted the show for the States, mostly just by keeping the tropes of the original, then building an original story around them) are filled with the sort of overripe, hammy dialogue that star Kevin Spacey always relishes sinking his teeth into. It’s an interesting mix that doesn’t quite work in the first two episodes screened for critics, but if the show ever figures out the perfect mix of these elements, watch out. It could very easily become one of the very best serialized stories out there.

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Tyler   

I've seen announcements that anyone can watch the premiere episode on Netflix, even if you don't have a subscription. This approach helps to explain how they plan to make money from the show (non-subscribers will get hooked and then sign up), which had seemed kind of fuzzy to me.

Edited by Tyler

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Tyler   

I gave up 30 minutes into the first episode.

My tweet review:

House of Cards: Sorkinized version of Otto Preminger's Advise & Consent, with Kevin Spacey as a condescending Ferris Bueller.

Edited by Tyler

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Tyler wrote:

: I've seen announcements that anyone can watch the premiere episode on Netflix, even if you don't have a subscription.

This is similar to what HBO did with the first episodes of Veep and Girls, both of which I watched on HBO's YouTube channel. It was a way to lure people into getting an HBO subscription. (In my case, it didn't work. :) )

I just realized: This is the second David Fincher directorial effort in a row that was basically an American remake of a European movie (which, in turn, had been based on a European novel).

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M. Leary   

We could probably live blog or chatroom this weekend on this, as I imagine many of us are watching it. I have just embarked, and it already has me well-hooked. And I don't even like Kevin Spacey.

I already have the impression that this is a role tailor-made for him.

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M. Leary   

Not a whisp of Sorkin here. As much as I hate the Dragon Tattoo stuff, Fincher is potentially unraveling West Wing from the ground up. The Sorkin walk and talk has become 2nd person interior monologue. I wager that Soderbergh will watch this and feel like he missed out.

And it is early, but the focus on word and media is almost Godardian in scope. I almost want to go back and watch the BBC source text first.

Edited by M. Leary

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Tyler   

Does the "talking to the camera" stuff ever become purposeful? In the scenes that I watched, it just seemed like lazy exposition, done in an awkward way. Most of the dialogue felt more functional that natural, too.

And to be honest, I'm not sure I can watch Spacey objectively at all. He might be my least favorite actor.

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M. Leary   

I really do not like Kevin Spacey. At all. He ruins films for me.

But. the talking to the camera stuff is journalism in the best sense of the term. It gets intense. As said above, this series is so far (4 episodes) nigh Zodiac. And the growing complexity of the narrative of power vs. power is potentially what I have always thought happens in these corridors of democracy. Waiting for a Condoleezza Rice proxy.

Edit:

Okay, so 9 episodes later... It is decent. I am not sold on this Netflix format in which an entire block of episodes are dumped at once. That doesn't mean I have to watch them all, but it makes the flaws of the series more apparent immediately. If delivered in a typical format, I could see this being an immensely well-received show.

But it starts to drag a bit. There are a few real oddball narrative surprises that flirt with character development subplots that haven't panned out yet.

Edited by M. Leary

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I am about to sit down and start watching this with my wife (I ran out to get pastries and grapes so we can have breakfast as we watch the first few episodes).

I am not sold on this Netflix format in which an entire block of episodes are dumped at once. That doesn't mean I have to watch them all, but it makes the flaws of the series more apparent immediately. If delivered in a typical format, I could see this being an immensely well-received show.

The format makes sense for Netflix's business model. And as a guy who doesn't subscribe to cable, I've come to know a lot of the acclaimed TV shows through binge-viewing, either through the DVD releases or on Netflix.

That's not to defend the model as it affects the show, perhaps, but if Netflix's model becomes a new standard (and there are good arguments for why it won't become a new standard, at least for a while yet), shows will have to seriously adjust. They will now not be weekly, episodic stories, but epic, 13-hour films, which is, I think, an exciting possibility, even if it presents its own challenges.

Right now, we're watching television slowly take over certain kinds of stories from cinema. On the whole, TV already does far better with comedy than cinema does, which is why the vast majority of contemporary cinematic comedy has lost its appeal for me. Part of the reason the "adult thriller" has mostly disappeared from cinema screens is because television has tended to do at least as well with it as the cinema of the last decade or so has (and now we are even making way for horror television, and indeed one of Netflix's upcoming originals is, indeed, a horror series). Television is also very close to doing better with certain kinds of dramatic narrative. Just to stick with David Fincher, I can easily imagine long-form versions of ZODIAC or THE SOCIAL NETWORK that would be more satisfying than their current film forms. Might Spielberg's LINCOLN have also done better as a television series? Probably. Heck, MYSTERIES OF LISBON, my favorite film of the last fifteen or so years, was actually television before it was cinema.

This is to say: the film industry needs to seriously rethink its priorities if it wants to survive.

Edited by Ryan H.

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The New York Times used House of Cards in its coverage of the growing phenomenon of block-veiwing (my term; watching several episodes of a show in one sitting).

Some people, pressured by their peers to watch “Mad Men” or “Game of Thrones,” catch up on previous seasons to see what all the fuss is about before a new season begins. Others plan weekend marathons of classics like “The West Wing” and “The Wire.” Like other American pastimes, it can get competitive: people have been known to brag about finishing a whole 12-episode season of “Homeland” in one sitting.

On Friday, Netflix will release a drama expressly designed to be consumed in one sitting:“House of Cards,” a political thriller starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. Rather than introducing one episode a week, as distributors have done since the days of black-and-white TVs, all 13 episodes will be streamed at the same time. “Our goal is to shut down a portion of America for a whole day,” the producer Beau Willimon said with a laugh.

Edited by Christian

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M. Leary   
That's not to defend the model as it affects the show, perhaps, but if Netflix's model becomes a new standard (and there are good arguments for why it won't become a new standard, at least for a while yet), shows will have to seriously adjust. They will now not be weekly, episodic stories, but epic, 13-hour films, which is, I think, an exciting possibility, even if it presents its own challenges.

Right now, we're watching television slowly take over certain kinds of stories from cinema.

One issue I am noticing with block watching is that when a series attempts to attain a consistent cinematic quality, even feeling like the work of an auteur (e.g. Breaking Bad), watching it in such a congested way makes inconsistencies more apparent. I could not watch something like House of Cards like one giant 13 hour film even if that is how it is tacitly marketed or constructed. I did, however, watch Che or Carlos or Traffik like big giant films.

Having now finished House of Cards I am a little bummed at how I can't think of much to actually say about it.

Edited by M. Leary

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M. Leary   

A few more thoughts here as they percolate... It strikes me that much of what we are now seeing in this era of quality television is an attempt to translate cinema language into the TV episodic format. While there are cases in which this succeeds, they are isolated cases that exist within very lengthy spans of material that forms the context for these moments. (Take for example the Breaking Bad fly episode or the early Mad Men episode with Don partying with the pot smokers.) But the aesthetic success of these moments is degraded by the relative mediocrity of what comes before and after. The struggle of the auteur as described in film theory is the struggle to contain problems of representation in well-constructed and isolated works of art. From this perspective, Twin Peaks and Homicide or even better... the first season of Miami Vice are the progenitors of our current TV models, in that they translate exploratory cinema forms into TV scripts marked by a particular "voice" or formal strategy.

The problem I have with House of Cards is that it self-consciously exists in this model, which itself is a new form of media marketing banking on our transition away from commercial broadcasting. So I can't quite take it seriously as something to discuss as cinema even though this is precisely what it is asking us to do. This emerging quality of form in ex-TV production is actually part of an overall marketing strategy that attempts to mark X series as more in important than Y series on CBS or NBC (though I think it began with FX and AMC as a recognition that smarter TV would have a big audience, which was true. How cool would it have been to be Shawn Ryan with Michael Chiklis and a blank check?). Yes, there is a lot of Zizek in my response here. But I think the broad acceptance of the TV format (now netflix and hulu format) as more intelligent or even enlightening amusement is something we accept too easily.

But here is where the paradox exists... The Wire and Sopranos are examples of shows so consistently high-grade in terms of craftsmanship that I don't want to jettison TV shows as a viable aesthetic medium (and in fact, I wish someone would just hand Soderbergh or Denis or Leigh a blank check and say: Give us 12 episodes of whatever, but you have to be involved with every step and get final cut). Or even a medium of justice and edification or reconciliation. House of Cards just isn't on that plane, though I only think seasoned film critics will be able to articulate why. My prediction: We are now in an age where the venn diagram between cinema, TV, music video, and even commercial is becoming artificially close. Which in turn forms us into more generalized versions of what is actually good and true about proper cinema. Film is going to be the loser here.

And relevant to the thread, I am bummed that all I learned from House of Cards is that the only time I have really liked Kevin Spacey is in a role that epitomizes American politics.

Edited by M. Leary

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I agree that this doesn't pan out as a 13-hour movie, despite what the advertising says. The way they've structured the show--heavy on the plot twist and turns at the beginning, more languorous and character-driven in the build-up toward the end--would probably play better with a little time for each episode to settle. Not just because the show has inconsistencies--which it does--but the pacing of each episode doesn't seem to fit into a 13-episode run. Each episode has its own individual rhythm, and that rhythm doesn't neatly fit into an overall arc. Still, I had a great time with it. Bring on season 2.

One brief note: this is the first TV show I've seen that implements social media/communication technology into its narrative in a way that seems natural and (mostly) credible.

The problem I have with House of Cards is that it self-consciously exists in this model, which itself is a new form of media marketing banking on our transition away from commercial broadcasting.

And cinema has never been chained in similar ways to market impulses?

HOUSE OF CARDS does not pan out with an auteurist method of engagement. And I suspect that, unless television follows your wish ("I wish someone would just hand Soderbergh or Denis or Leigh a blank check and say: Give us 12 episodes of whatever, but you have to be involved with every step and get final cut"), that won't happen. At least not very frequently, as it might with movie-miniseries like CARLOS or MYSTERIES OF LISBON. And, perhaps, without that happening, formal engagement with television will always be unsatisfying.

But I am not drawn to television because of the aesthetics as much as I am drawn to television because of writing. So yes, even "good" TV may more often be--to use fiction writers for analogy--more Alexandre Dumas than Vladimir Nabokov. But is that really so bad? I suppose if that's all we get, yes, it might be. But in a world where cinema fails to even entertain, "good" TV like HOUSE OF CARDS looks very good indeed.

Edited by Ryan H.

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Darren H   

Two-and-a-half episodes in, I'm already feeling nostalgic for Aaron Sorkin's romantic liberalism in the first three seasons of The West Wing. At least he had a perspective. So far, House of Cards seems cynical to the extreme. Depicting corruption and the seduction of power isn't the same thing as critiquing it. But, frankly, Robin Wright in tailored suits and the Fincher aesthetic are more than enough to keep me watching. I'm glad to hear that the pace slows a bit in the later episodes.

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M. Leary   

And cinema has never been chained in similar ways to market impulses?

Certainly, but I think it has a different effect. And at times, the relative mediocrity of film chained to market impulses elevates the significance of alternative cinema options. I think what I am specifically having issues with is the way talking about cinema does not translate into talking about TV that intends to achieve similar levels of formal intrigue - even though this is how we have begun talking about quality TV.

Two-and-a-half episodes in, I'm already feeling nostalgic for Aaron Sorkin's romantic liberalism in the first three seasons of The West Wing. At least he had a perspective. So far, House of Cards seems cynical to the extreme. Depicting corruption and the seduction of power isn't the same thing as critiquing it. But, frankly, Robin Wright in tailored suits and the Fincher aesthetic are more than enough to keep me watching. I'm glad to hear that the pace slows a bit in the later episodes.

And the West Wing took on very divisive political issues with a particularly liberal stance. The political issues House of Cards chooses as the base of their narrative conflicts are actually very innocuous. So... it all ends up being very toothless. And the great Jed Bartlett prayer in the last (?) season is one of my favorite TV moments. There is a direct analogue here that I actually skipped through. That said, there is a particular story arc that merits watching through the entire series, and will certainly have me watching the next season. You can sense Fincher's interest in the process of creating and using information throughout the series, which was the only real Fincheresque movement.

Edited by M. Leary

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I’m now six episodes in.

First, I don’t understand what all the hype is about it all being released at once. I’m indifferent. What I want to know is if it’s a good show. If it’s a good show, I’ll watch it if I have to watch only one episode per week and I’ll watch it two or three episodes at a time if I’m a year late or if it’s released online all at once. If it’s like most TV shows, I’ll never watch it, no matter how it’s released. It seems like a large amount of critics a judging House of Cards in the context of how it’s been released. I’m just not sure how it matters.

Second, this is a good show. It's intelligent and sophisticated in its treatment of the many different pieces that are always shifting and changing in politics. Spacey's Congressman Underwood is master at the arts of persuasion, manipulation and compromise. For anyone to succeed in the world of Washington D.C., he or she has to be visionary, ever adaptable and, in a sense, Machiavellian. Underwood is all of these things. He's not perfect and he's not in complete control, so occasionally things go wrong and he suffers losses. But that's part of what makes the story fascinating. In a world increasingly full of partisans and ideologues, it is actually a little refreshing to see the realism and practicality of a Congressman who has to deal with these people every day just to get something accomplished. Just as a matter of personal taste, I find the question of how anyone can get anything at all done in politics to be fascinating. This is, essentially, what this show is about.

Third, so far I don't think this is going to be a great show. I'm not sure how to explain it other than that, partly because of the show's cynicism, most of the time there don't really seem to be any moral stakes in the story. I don't want the show to introduce any cartoonish villains. Neither do I object to a hero who is not as pure as the driven snow. But good and evil are real and politics is one of the most complex spheres in which good and evil battle things out. The conflict between good and evil has been reduced to banality in many films and TV shows, but I still think a story still loses something important but completely ignoring it. This is where the film, Spielberg's Lincoln, actually succeeds. If you are going to tell a great story set within the questionable and compromising world of politics, don't ignore the moral ambiguity, but don't ignore the moral stakes that are often at issue either. Combine the complexity of political statecraft with the sense that there are still moral truths to be fought over, and then you'll have something great. House of Cards doesn't really seem to be putting both of these things together.

So for now I'm finding the show highly enjoyable, but I'm not finding it to be as powerful as I have other TV show stories like The Wire or Deadwood.

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(though I think it began with FX and AMC as a recognition that smarter TV would have a big audience, which was true. How cool would it have been to be Shawn Ryan with Michael Chiklis and a blank check?)

Fincher, of course only actually directed 2 episodes here. Among the other directors were James Foley and Joel Schumacher (!!!).

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I'm not sure how to explain it other than that, partly because of the show's cynicism, most of the time there don't really seem to be any moral stakes in the story. I don't want the show to introduce any cartoonish villains. Neither do I object to a hero who is not as pure as the driven snow. But good and evil are real and politics is one of the most complex spheres in which good and evil battle things out. The conflict between good and evil has been reduced to banality in many films and TV shows, but I still think a story still loses something important but completely ignoring it. This is where the film, Spielberg's Lincoln, actually succeeds. If you are going to tell a great story set within the questionable and compromising world of politics, don't ignore the moral ambiguity, but don't ignore the moral stakes that are often at issue either. Combine the complexity of political statecraft with the sense that there are still moral truths to be fought over, and then you'll have something great. House of Cards doesn't really seem to be putting both of these things together.

This seems to me to be quite an unfair characterization. HOUSE OF CARDS may be cynical, but it is not drenched in moral ambiguity. HOUSE OF CARDS has a very obvious moral compass.

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I'm only 2 episodes in. I was very fond of theh British original (at least season 1). Curious how well it will transalte fromt he parliamentary style of govt to US division of branches.

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This seems to me to be quite an unfair characterization. HOUSE OF CARDS may be cynical, but it is not drenched in moral ambiguity. HOUSE OF CARDS has a very obvious moral compass.

I may have been too hasty to write that while only halfway through the show. After a couple more episodes last night, I can see how some possibilities might develop (particularly in the case of Congressman Russo's subplot).

8 episodes in, however, and if I was asked to describe the show's moral compass, I would describe it as the pursuit of power. For the majority of characters, my impression is that the highest good for them is power. Why would you say my impression here is wrong?

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