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
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.