Monday, February 4, 2013

The Politics Of: House of Cards

It Looks Like* The Washington Monument. Really: The Middle Finger to HBO
Netflix's political drama House of Cards came out--in one giant lump-sum--on Friday. What is it? Why is it new? And what are the politics. There will be spoilers.

The Politics of Netflix
House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey, is something new. It is the first premium-content style show developed for Netflix and, by extension, for the web (yes, Netflix is watched significantly on TV screens--but it is more-so launched on a combination of phones, tablets, and computers).

Launched daringly on Super Bowl weekend, House of Cards is a shot-across-the-bow at traditional networks and cable companies. Firstly, Netflix has offered free trials which is a technique HBO and Showtime use to try to hook users on their services--amping that up with House of Cards is a power-move.

Secondly, all 13 episodes of House of Cards have been released at once. You can binge on it all weekend if you want to. This, too, is a move that shows the confidence they have in their property: dribbling it out over 13 weeks would be a traditional way to keep users coming back for more. It's probable that Netflix feels they just have so much content that if users power-watch House of Cards on Saturday they'll still have plenty of stuff to look at before the game Sunday.

Combining this with a headliner like Kevin Spacey and slick production values (not to mention heavyweights like David Fincher in the executive producer slots) overwhelming. House of Cards is Netflix's wake-up call to media everywhere. If it flops epically, well, it's a big loss for all of us (but mostly Netflix). If it doesn't it could change the way media gets made (even if, in the end, just a little).

House Of Cards
House of Cards takes us to an alternate-reality Washington DC in 2013 where Kevin Spacey is the Majority Whip for the House of Representatives and President Walker (Michael Gill) has just been elected President (for a second term, I believe). At the top of his agenda is education--everyone loves kids--but he's made a fatal mistake: despite promising Spacey the position of Secretary of State for his help in getting elected, he has nominated someone else.

In the opening scene Spacey finds a pet dog (he knows the owners) hit by a car. He kneels down and breaks the 4th wall, a technique the show uses frequently, to tell us his opinion on pain: there are two kinds--one makes you stronger. One is needless suffering. The hit-by-a-car kind is needless and he, still looking at us, does what needs to be done. We hear the dog whimper and die: by the time its owners get there, it looks like it was an instant kill. Whatever this tells us about Spacey's character's take on pain it tells us a lot more about the character in general. It tells us that the president is probably going to wish he'd watched the first two minutes of House of Cards before deciding to double-cross Spacey.

That's where the show takes off from and for the first two episodes it doesn't slow down (that's what I've watched so far).

Cards has roughly four stories going at once. Spacey's attempt to school the administration, his ice-queen wife's (Robin Wright's) attempt to improve her non-profit's profile, a slacker congressman's relationship with his secretary (and his indiscretions landing himself under control of Spacey), and Kate Mara's attempt to climb the journalism ladder at the fictional Washington Herald.

Of these the most time is given to Spacey's story, which is a good thing, as he is awesome to watch. As the character who breaks the 4th wall to talk to us, he's our main-character and the closest the story comes to a hero (he's not a hero--but the president looks weak and slimy and everyone else is downhill from there). His wife certainly isn't a hero. We watch her coolly lay off almost twenty people from her non-profit as she re-tools it for bigger things. She then fires the office manager (who did the firing) leaving her, late in life, to ... well, something. We get a chilling shot of Wright in a coffee shop watching a new-hire older worker unable to figure out the cash register. While she's (slightly) disturbed by this, she doesn't exactly have a lot of sympathy for her long-time employee she just threw to the wolves.

The slacker congressman is funny but he's also sleeping around on his secretary / girlfriend who loves him. I don't think we mind seeing him taken under control by Spacey. Cub reporter Zoe might be more sympathetic if she wasn't such a single-minded career-climber who is also trying (relatively ineffectively so far) to put the moves on Spacey. Blind ambition isn't all that attractive even if Mara is.

House of Card's politics and power is sophisticated. The writing may not be at Sorkin-level of wittiness but the handling of influence and personalities feels right. It isn't trying to educate us the way The Newsroom or West Wing was--but it is trying to lift the curtain on what's "really going on." This is why Spacey breaks the 4th wall: we get the event and the commentary. In someone else's hands this might feel clumsy. Spacey makes it look easy.

You should watch House of Cards if you want a blackly comedic, smoothly dramatic look at the Washington power elite. If you like political dramas or intrigue and plotting House of Cards stands up way more strongly than its name implies. Netflix has gone all out here--they have a winner.

Let's do the politics!

The Politics of House of Cards
In the Cards-verse the Democrats have the House and the presidency. We don't have partisan battles so much as internecine warfare. The fact that the president is opening with education as his primary agenda item tells you this isn't a roman à clef. That's refreshing: I'm actually kind of glad we don't have to have a president with an active over-seas targeted assassination program to endlessly debate.

It also doesn't chicken out with the parties. The Democrats are Democrats: when the president wants an education bill passed in his first 100 days he gets someone who is allegedly "To the left of Karl Marx" to write it (Spacey quickly gets the bill under his control and the guy kicked off the team--Spacey may be a Democrat but he's no "old style" tax-and-spend Democrat ... I guess he's a blue-dog?).

I think there's a key scene where Kate Mara (cub reporter Zoe) makes her deal with Spacey which tells us a good deal about how House of Cards thinks about politics and power. Her opening move is to show up unannounced on his doorstep with an image of a photo someone got of him, outside a building, looking down  at her scantily clad backside as she walks past.

She suggests that he might have already expressed an interest in meeting with her. There's no implied threat (she is fully clothed--but you can see her underwear under the dress)--just some minor personal embarrassment on Spacey's part so he agrees to give her five minutes. She makes her pitch (while definitely trying a little sex appeal as well--not that it seems to do much good) and tells him she'll print anything he gives her anonymously so long as he gives her something.

He asks what makes her think he doesn't already have such a deal--and she says if he did, he wouldn't be talking to her.

I think she's wrong about that. For all I know, he might--but what has changed, I think, is that Spacey just got back-stabbed by the administration. He's going to start taking them down and can't have his fingerprints on it. So if he had long-standing existing channels (which, again, he might), he still wouldn't use them for this new offensive against his former friends: he needs someone who he can mold and shape--someone who really will run anything he gives them ... even if it's weak or shady (which his dispatches are).

I'm not sure that's how House of Cards sees it--but it might well be: the performances are nuanced enough to leave some valid questions open.

Also of interest politically is the fictional newspaper, the Washington Herald. Clearly it's supposed to be The Post--it has stature and history. However it is also the Washington Times: it's apparently a conservative paper that dislikes the Democratic president. This shows us an interesting set of choices about how House of Cards was developed.

The story has to have a respected newspaper willing to run destructive stories against the incumbent. In England where, I presume, the original BBC series (and novel) was set this is not hard to do with the raw material. However, in Washington you have some choices:
  1. Keep the paper liberal (The Post) and make the president Republican. That would also make Spacey Republican.
  2. Make the paper conservative (which would be The Washington Times--but it also needs stature) and keep the president and Spacey Democratic.
Why choose #2 (which they did) over #1? My guess is that #2 is less politically relevant to modern-day reality than #1. While, yes, we have a Democrat in the White House we certainly do not have a unified House and Oval Office. A more convincingly fake paper makes the comparisons to what's happening in Game of Cards and real life more difficult. I suspect that's part of the story.

I also suspect that getting "traditional Democratic" politics right is easier today than nailing "traditional Republican" politics. By the term "traditional" I don't mean "back in the day" I mean run-of-the-mill. What would you have a Republican education bill be offering or fighting about? Teaching creationism? No Child Left Behind? Ending tenure? I'm not sure.

I also know that if the issue on the table for the first 100 days for a full-on Republican government wasn't ending the entitlement state I'd be watching the whole thing going "When was this made? 2004?" They don't want that. Nobody wants that.

House of Cards has to demonstrate political savvy but not get entangled in real-world concerns. I think it's shaped and structured to do that. It has the appropriate verisimilitude without having us try to deconstruct every new character to figure out who they're supposed to be. That's the right answer for these times and I think they nailed it.

* The upside down American flag indicates "distress." Why did they choose it for the logo? It's possible that they did it because they want to indicate that they're going to show us Washington as "really corrupt"--but I don't think they hit that level of shock-value. I suspect that they were more going for the analogy of "everything is upside down" or maybe even "Washington as a disgrace."

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