Netflix throws their hat in the ring for original programming. But is this Spacey and Fincher f*cking around with a desperate new company’s money? Or is this show actually good?

Genre: Political Drama (TV)
Premise: (from IMDB) Francis Underwood is Majority Whip. He has his hands on every secret in politics – and is willing to betray them all to become President.
About: David Fincher went looking for a writer for this project 3 years ago. He came upon “Ides of March” scribe Beau Willimon, who excited him with his desire to cherry-pick the best parts of the original UK show then reinvent everything else for the American audience. This is Netflix’s first original show, a show that bucked the traditional TV release model and released all 13 episodes at once.
Creator: Beau Willimon
Writer of pilot: Beau Willimon (based on the 1990 TV series by Andrew Davies and Michael Dobbs)
Details: 60 minutes long

house_of_cards2

Kevin Spacey. David Fincher. How bad can it be? As bad as the writer allows it to be. So who wrote it? Beau Willimon. Wait a minute? Beau WHO?? Chances are, you don’t know that name. Well, I can tell you he wrote a hell of a screenplay (Farragut North – which ended up becoming “The Ides Of March”) that made the Black List in 2007 and which I reviewed a couple of years ago. Outside of that, I don’t think Beau’s done much. In that sense, he’s really lucky that Ides got made (for five years it was deader than Hugo Chavez) because if it didn’t, he would’ve never got an opportunity like this, which appears to be the opportunity of a lifetime.

You get to write a show that has the biggest budget on television (over 4 million bucks an episode) for a new network that’s spending outrageous money solely to make a splash in an industry that’s kicking every other industry’s ass. Yup. That’s why I’m reviewing a TV pilot today (and plan to review more). Everyone wants to get into TV. All my writer friends are ditching the pie in the sky spec sale scenario and moving into television. Like it or not – this is where all the writing heat is these days.

And what better way to celebrate that than by checking out the pilot for House of Cards, a project that probably would’ve never been made if it wasn’t for Netflix. The show is different. It’s risky. And it takes on subject matter that’s typically ignored unless your name’s Aaron Sorkin (people don’t like to see their politics dramatized. They prefer the real-life stuff.  Case in point – check out how Ides of March did, despite great writing and a high profile cast).

If you’re like me, you might’ve been worried about a couple of other things, as well. First, that this was a Kevin Spacey vanity project. We all know how those turn out (Beyond The Sea). Fincher directing alleviated some of that, but I was also worried about this being something every other network passed on but Netflix was so desperate to work with some top names that they let Spacey and Fincher come in with their garbage and use them to make a weird show nobody wanted to see. “Ha ha” they’d say, as they stole 50 million dollars from this clueless video rental company.

Anyway, House of Cards follows Francis Underwood, a congressman who’s been cleaning up messes for his party for 30 years. He’s paid his dues. He’s done his time. And now he’s backed the perfect candidate, who’s gone ahead and become president. His reward for all this? Secretary of State, a position he’ll surely get as he’s responsible for everyone on the president’s team (including the president himself) having a job.

But things don’t go as planned. When Francis takes his first meeting with the president to start game-planning, he’s met instead with the prez’s right-hand woman, Linda Vasquez. Vasquez has some bad news for Francis. They’ve decided against making him Secretary of State. They need him, instead, to stay in Congress. Francis. Is. PISSED. But he holds it together. He plays the roll of the good son. He nods, says he’ll do his best, and Vasquez is thrilled. She knew that would be a toughy.

Well Vasquez shouldn’t be too thrilled. Francis doesn’t spend 30 years of careful maneuvering to get to this point only to have his dream position snatched away and NOT DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT. NO no no. Francis decides to become the nastiest dirtiest politician in Washington. Now we don’t quite know what this means yet, but when he blackmails a senator and starts dishing dirt to a hot new Washington Post blogger, we get an idea. This guy wants to either puppeteer the presidential office or destroy it entirely.

Okay, there are a lot of factors in play here for this analysis. First off, I’m dissecting a pilot as opposed to a film. I don’t know as much about TV, so that’s going to be a challenge. On top of this, we’re breaking down a show that got carte blanche from Neflix to do whatever the hell it wanted. According to Beau, Netflix never gave a single note. What that likely resulted in was a lot of experimenting, a lot of rule-breaking. It’s always fascinating to watch people break rules because there’s an inherent part of us that believes rules are bullshit. That if we stopped being a slave to them, we’d actually write something original and exciting and different and great (for once). Of course, there’s also the analyst side of me who’s endured the 3000 scripts that you guys never see, the ones where writers are always trying to break the rules. And every single one of them is a disaster.

Fincher and Willimon don’t disappoint. They break two major rules within the first few minutes. Are you ready for this? The show opens with our main character KILLING A DOG. There’s an old joke in Hollywood that you never have your main character kill an animal because the audience will hate him. As almost a way to say “FUCK YOU” to convention, Willimon and Fincher literally start their show with Francis killing a dog. Wow.

The second thing? They have Francis break the fourth wall. Yes, he talks directly to the audience. Talking directly to the audience is almost always a disastrous move. It’s just really hard to get right. For every Ferris Bueller, there are a thousand….well, movies you’ve forgotten because they had a character talking to the audience. And then of course, I’ve never seen this device used in a DRAMA before. When a character like this is funny, talking to us doesn’t seem so strange. We’re laughing! But to use this device in a DRAMA?? Wow, that’s chance-taking right there.

My first reaction to this? NOOOOOOOOO. Gag me with a moldy plastic spoon. But here’s the funny thing. This second rule-breaking stunt actually fixed the first one. Who doesn’t hate a character after they’ve killed a dog? Raise your hand. But when Francis starts talking to us, we feel connected to him. That’s the one big advantage with breaking the fourth wall. You create a direct connection between the audience and the character that you can’t get through any other device. So we start to feel like this guy’s friend, like his accomplice, and for that reason, we kind of forgive him for killing that doggy, just like we’d forgive one of our own friends for doing something terrible.

Another reason why we’re able to overlook the pooch-killing? Ironically, the answer lies within the canine family.  Because Fincher and Willimon turn Francis into the world’s biggest underdog. This guy helped a nobody become the president of the United States. And then that president fucks him over and doesn’t reward him, basically relegating him to cleaning the shit out of the company toilets? How can we not root for Francis after that?

This leads me to one of the cooler devices Willimon used throughout the script, which is that he’d set up the stakes for many of his scenes ahead of time, giving later scenes added pop. For example, Francis spends the first 10 minutes of the episode basically telling us how hard he’s worked to get to this point. We can see the relief in his eyes, the thankfulness that after 30 years, everything’s finally going to pay off. In other words, we’ve established his STAKES. Getting here is everything to him.

This is why the later scene where Vasquez tells him they’re going with someone else is so powerful – BECAUSE WE KNOW HOW MUCH THIS MEANS TO HIM. We set up those stakes earlier so that the audience would be devastated when he received the heartbreaking news. Had Willimon not dedicated those first few scenes to setting up Francis’ excitement for becoming Secretary of State, the rejection scene would have been 1/10 as powerful. We see this device being utilized several times during the episode to great effect.

I also found it interesting how much this felt like a feature. There were none of those gimmicky cliffhangers you’d typically find right before the commercial breaks in a “normal” TV show. Everything unraveled slowly and meticulously. It was like they weren’t afraid not to grab you. And it worked, mainly because of those differences (the breaking of the 4th wall) and the strong characters. If that’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that TV has to have strong characters. Because even the lesser guys are going to be on dozens of episodes. So you have to make them all compelling. That can’t be easy.

I feel like I could keep talking about this medium forever because there’s so much about it I don’t know yet. Instead, I’ll just say to check out House of Cards on Netflix if you get a chance. It’s definitely worth it.

[ ] what the hell did I just see?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth watching
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: To create sympathy for your main character, have someone screw him over. But if you want to add an extra dose of sympathy, have them screw him over AFTER he’s done something nice for them. This is why we sympathize with Francis so much even though he’s a manipulative dog killer.

  • Jean Robie

    I recommend watching the original British version of this to see how really weak the American version is. The episodes looked great and there’s no doubting the direction, acting, and production values. But Francis’ narration was godawful: it contributed nothing to understanding the character and was so cliched it made my teeth ache. Also Francis didn’t seem especially evil. Yes, he (spoiler alert)…

    …killed somebody. But for the rest of the series, he was merely a conniving politician–watch the British version to see how evil a power-hungry maniac can get. I didn’t hate the series, but I was disappointed in it and the disappointed can be squarely set at the feet of the writer.

    • Howie428

      I’ve not seen the American version so I can’t comment on it. I’ve also not seen the British version in more than 20 years, but I still vividly remember how awesome it was.

  • JTR

    Nice review! This sounds like an outstanding show.

    Carson — when are you going to do an amateur week for TV pilots?

  • http://twitter.com/JLHeadScripts J Lawrence Head

    Great review. Yeah i had all 13 eps watched in less than 3 days. Fantastic series. Well written, well shot, well acted. And one thing about Frank killing the dog, he did in the one exception to the rule. He did it to END THE DOG’S PAIN. He showed compassion and empathy.

    • Joe Marino

      Same here, J. Great opening scene, really sets the tone. Got me hooked, I know that.

  • cjob3

    Of course the dog was suffering and in pain. So he was really doing a nice thing.

    It’s funny that his Save the Cat moment was Killing a Dog.

    • http://twitter.com/JLHeadScripts J Lawrence Head

      Think of how many cats that dog might have killed…

      • cjob3

        Ah. So but Killing the Dog he’s actually Saving the Cats. Brilliant.

    • John Bradley

      *Spoiler*
      cjob3, that’s exactly what I said when I was watching it! I thought it was a perfect Save the Cat moment for a character that walks the line between good and bad…It also was an amazing call back when he murdered the Congressman whose life was falling apart.

      • cjob3

        yeah, I haven’t watched that far. That’s a pretty huge spoiler, all right. I could see that being quite surprising.

  • ripleyy

    The show was really addictive. The fourth-wall thing was really fun, like I kept wanting to watch on to see when he’d do it next.

    Looking forward to seeing how Amateur TV Pilot week ends up.

  • http://twitter.com/KennyNOL Will Vega

    I already saw the whole series too. Liked it very much. I personally love fourth wall breaking when it deals with stuff like this, you see a character in a role of a politician saying one thing but then turns and tells us something else. It really gets the snakey persona off well, the funeral scene was my favorite use of it.

  • DD

    I just finished the first season over the weekend. Overall it’s a solid 3 stars out of 4. Maybe 3.5 for some of the stronger episodes. Production and acting-wise, it’s top notch. It has the mark of David Fincher on every square inch of it. That’s the best part.

    My biggest problems with it are two-fold.

    1. There’s so little urgency. Given that they have a 2 season commitment, carte-blance in terms of creative freedom and budget, and a built-in audience, this freed them to tell a story on THEIR terms at THEIR pace. But that doesn’t translate into URGENT viewing. I was hooked after the first 3 episodes, but the next 7 felt slow and deliberate and at times MEANDERING. Just going back and forth between characters with minimal stuff going on. Needed more narrative JUICE!! That said, the last 3 episodes FINALLY picked up with Peter Russo’s storyline climaxing and Frances’ twisting and Zoe’s turning into All the President’s men BLOG edition! It was pretty nicely done.

    2. Some of the minor characters are far more interesting than the major ones. Russo was the most interesting character by far. Ditto for Stamper. He was conniving and dark and manipulative. Meanwhile, Zoe and Frances and Mrs. Underwood were at times cold and hard to care for. They’re just so dead inside. But all have some layers, so we’ll see how deep they go.

    Anyway, yeah. It’s worth watching. Just not MUST SEE Tv.

  • http://twitter.com/kinnygraham Graham

    The ‘Breaking the Fourth Wall’ approach is a direct lift from the British version. I’ve not seen the Netflix take, but if there was ever an actor who could excel at the ‘direct to camera’ stuff, it was Ian Richardson – the actor who played the ‘Spacey’ equivalent in the original. Knowing, intelligent and ruthlessly charming – and also witty – which probably connects to Carson’s point about this kind of stuff usually only working in comedy…Richardson’s ‘Francis Urquhart’ (I see they’ve tweaked the name somewhat) remains a cult favourite British TV character long since the show was originally broadcast.

    There’s probably some of YouTube somewhere and would be worth checking out – though might be wise to be wary of SPOILERS if the Spacey version follows the UK version in broad strokes…..

    • Ambrose*

      I just looked Ian Richardson up on IMDb and noticed that the original UK series aired in 1990.

      It’s somewhat surprising that there was such a long gap – 23 years – from the original series to the new American version.

      Nowadays, the American adaptations of foreign (British, Israeli, etc.) TV shows seem to come fast and furious. No decades of dust to blow off.

  • harveywilkinson

    “…a project that probably never would have been made if it wasn’t for Netflix.”

    C’mon Carson, do A LITTLE homework before busting out inside baseball pronouncements! HOUSE OF CARDS sparked a bidding war when they took it out — it already had Spacey and FIncher attached. PLENTY of people (including networks and premium cable) wanted to make this. Netflix won out because they made an insane, 100M two season commitment without so much as a pilot. But it was certainly getting made with or without Netflix.

    • trevmax7

      Very true. Just read a great article on Beau Willimon in Backstory magazine that basically said as much. The real risk taken here was not so much in the content as it was in the distribution format, which looks to be paying off. Showtime wouldn’t have been afraid to air this, in fact they would’ve loved to. Netflix just made the better offer.

  • ChadStuart

    Well, I’m not so sure we’re supposed to “sympathize” with Frank and he’s certainly not the “underdog”. We’re sort of watching the bad guy here. The protagonist is the antagonist. The literary term is the “trickster”. It’s a lot harder to pull off this type of story, and it follows a completely different set of rules, but “House of Cards” pulls it off beautifully.

    • carsonreeves1

      I think he becomes the underdog once he gets screwed over by the very people he helped.

  • Greg Klein

    I just wish Spacey’s Southern accent sounded that good.

  • JakeBarnes12

    Need to check out the show

    I was watching an episode of Mad Men Season 5 recently and realized it was all people sitting in rooms talking and thought, sign me up. So tired of writing scenes of people having conversations while driving fork lifts backwards through flaming buildings.

    How about a Thursday article laying out the structure of hour-long TV drama with a special emphasis on transitioning from screen structure?

  • Murphy

    I was a bit of a fan of the UK version when it was first shown, I actually watched it again a few years ago and found it just as riveting as the first one.

    But I though this U.S. version was excellent, admittedly I have only watched Episode 1 but have the rest to watch and am waiting for a time when I can pay it some attention. I think Spacey is excellent in whatever he chooses to do and this is no exception.

    This is very well written and right up my alley as far as TV goes, I love anything set in the world of politics. Highly enjoyable.

    If anyone else is missing the West Wing and a bit starved of political drama then I would highly recommend the Norwegian series “Borgen”, it is a really good show based around the lives of a new, female Prime Minister and also the newsroom of a political TV show. I hear there is a U.S. remake in the works, but it is definitely worth catching the original – Season three is airing in Norway at the moment.

  • carsonreeves1

    Oh, we’re pretty Machiavellian over here too.

  • NajlaAnn

    Sorry. I tried watching the first episode and that’s all I’m gonna say about this series.

  • denisniel

    This show also took me by surprise by its quality!

    Although I don’t think this is the first original series that Netflix produces and releases all at once, I believe they had done it before – not so sucessfully, though – with the show Lllyhammer in 2011…

  • Jarrett_H

    I wanna read this review but House of Cards is on my short list of things to watch and I don’t want to ruin too much of it.

    I have to say though, did Ides really do as “bad” as you say, Carson? $12.5M budget and it grossed $76M. I’d say that’s a success considering the subject matter and target audience.

  • jridge32

    “I’ve never seen this device used in a drama before”… what are we categorizing “Fight Club” as?

  • klmn

    Don’t we get enough real politics to avoid fictional politics? Not interested.

  • Midnight Luck

    Saw the first episode. I am such a huge Fincher fan. Usually a big fan of Kevin Spacey too. They only times I haven’t been impressed is when he does a southern accent, most pointedly in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil which was appallingly awful (movie and accent). He seemed so excited to to that accent, that I knew he’d be back with it again.

    I also was so excited to see Ides of March, and did, and underwhelmed isn’t even the word. It was like I had no memory of the two hours, cause nothing happened, I left with no feeling whatsoever about the experience. Nothing there, it was sad.

    So you put all those things together and what do you get?

    I have to watch more.

    I can’t call this one yet.

    Yes the opening scene was my least favorite thing. Was it necessary? I don’t think so. Can we show how bad he is in some other way? definitely. Maybe there will be something down the line that connects what he did. But still, as an animal lover, always sets my teeth on edge.

    Glad to see Mara back in the swing of things, Kate that is, not Rooney. I like Rooney a lot, but Kate has always been a favorite of mine.

    So, off to watch more…..hoping it goes up not down.

  • http://twitter.com/jaexhkim jae kim

    I don’t have netflix. I guess I have to find it on bittorent.

  • Jose

    Carson,
    There´s a video essay concerning the breaking of the 4th wall at Indiwire Press Play web site. I think it was interesting. Check it out.

  • Dimitri

    Awesome you also review TV pilot’s now! Please, review Breaking Bad’s first episode. That show is one of the best ever created.

  • Citizen M

    Read an interesting article Why We Should Destroy the Spec Script Market

    “There really isn’t any point at all in writing for producers who don’t understand, value or appreciate the labour that goes into writing a script. And, unfortunately what the spec script market has created, is a industry full of producers who believe that writers should be prepared to parade endless ideas and scripts in front of them, until they stumble across one that takes their fancy… well, providing they can delegate the filtering process to other people: agents, unpaid interns, their PA etc etc.

    “However, the only way we’ll ever change the way producers work, is if writers are prepared to stop feeding the spec script market. Yes, every writer needs a calling card script. But beyond that, I strongly believe the way forward is to form relationships with producers, find out what they really need and then offer to develop the concept with them. If we’ve got project we just have to write regardless… well, in that case we should also have the stones to self-produce.

    “I know I keep on banging on about this, but if you bring together a producer who knows what they want to take to the market, a screenwriter capable of developing creative cinematic ideas, and a good script editor… that is the way to develop movies. A team of people getting the core idea right, before the actual scripting process takes place… instead of asking writer to develop and write a script, which the development team then re-writes to fix all the problems that could have been avoided by a proper brief.”

    Isn’t this pretty much the way TV works?

    • Malibo Jackk

      “However, the only way we’ll ever change the way producers work, is if writers are prepared to stop feeding the spec script market.”

      There is also the theory that you could eliminate a substantial amount of crime
      by locking innocent people in jail where they would be safe.

      • Citizen M

        Yeah, seems a bit pie in the sky. But this guy’s been around. He’s a Brit, award winning writer and director Clive Davies-Frayne, and he has IMDb credits, done lots of film festival shorts, and he wrote, produced and directed a feature called Smoke not listed on IMDb. I don’t know what happened to it, I’m going through the archives to find out.

        BTW, forgot the link: http://filmutopia.typepad.com/film_utopia/2011/11/sunday-movie-blog-why-we-should-destroy-the-spec-script-market.html

        • Malibo Jackk

          Scott Frank (Hollywood’s go-to guy for rewrites) has said that 90% of the scripts he sees — are scripts that he doesn’t understand why Hollywood is bothering to make them. The problem with most bad films IMO is that studios or producers have the concept of an idea but not a story — so they hire someone to write a story, someone who is not as invested as a spec writer would be with his own ideas.

  • John Bradley

    I LOVE this show…It is now my 4th favorite going after Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, and Sons of Anarchy…..Kevin Spacey can do no wrong!

  • fragglewriter

    Good idea to release the entire season all at once. At this age of technology, that was a smart move by Netflix.

    Even though I’m not into political subject manner for entertainment, I will definitely watch a few episodes as it intrigues me.

  • http://actfourscreenplays.com/ StoryMapsDan

    In case it hasn’t been said too many times here, House of Cards gets WAY better as it progresses. I was so glad I finished the season, as I was antsy at the beginning of it. Give it a shot and stick with it.

    It should also be noted that they got an insane group of top-notch, mostly feature directors to direct various episodes. David Fincher, James Foley, Joel Schumacher and a few more big names I forgot, and the result is cinematic quality on all fronts.

    And a correction, Carson, a TV writer friend of mine who seems to know these things says that Game of Thrones is the biggest budgeted show of all time, something in the range of $12-$18 mil per episode?!

  • http://twitter.com/Nikyatu Nikyatu

    I’d love to get my hands on the pilot. Could you email? nikyatufilms@gmail.com

  • seanfast

    Hey Carson, Lilyhammer was actually Netflix’s first original show, this was its second.

  • Ambrose*

    Taking a page from Shakespeare.

    It may be fairly new for a character to break the fourth wall in TV drama but not so in drama on the stage.

    An aside or soliloquy can reveal a character’s true intent, despite what he’s saying to the character in the scene with him/her.

    It can create a more personal connection between the actor/character and the audience.
    He’s talking directly to me. I am his confidant.

  • Awescillot

    I can only say I really enjoyed the first season. I’d like to read the script too, but can’t seem to find it. Anyone here who might be able to share it?