There’s a tradition for launching a new network with a original programming. The idea is to give audiences something they can’t get elsewhere.
On cable creating new original shows often leads to casting, or making shows about, minorities. It’s a remarkable trend. Look at the early scripted dramas and comedies for cable networks, who started seriously competing with broadcast in the late 1990s: HBO (Oz), Logo (Noah’s Arc), Lifetime (Sherri), TBS (Are We There Yet, Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, Meet the Browns, For Better or Worse), Showtime (Soul Food, Resurrection Boulevard, Queer as Folk, The L Word). I wasn’t surprised when Oprah Winfrey’s OWN announced its first scripted programs might come from, guess who? Tyler Perry.
The reason is: when you’re a new channel in a universe of at least dozens, you have to stand out. You look to underserved audiences who watch a lot of TV. Black viewers in the 2000s were an easy target–after the 1990s black sitcom boom and bust, those audiences, who watch more TV than others, were left wanting.
It’s important to understand this before talking about House of Cards, the most expensive web series ever. Netflix is competing with cable. Really, with HBO. (Previously I explored how its summer offering, Arrested Development, fits within web series history).
Has Netflix followed this trajectory? Yes and no. Most people don’t know about its first exclusives, Borgia and Lilyhammer, which were made in Europe and passable at best. Both were the sort of white-man anti-hero shows that have consumed TV fans over the past few years. When Netflix decided to put down upwards of $50 million (a reported $100 million) for an original show, what did it do?
A white-man anti-hero drama, adapted from an earlier British one.
But there’s a twist, one I haven’t seen mentioned on social media, because those of us trapped binge-watching House of Cards don’t want to spoil everything on Twitter. I’ll spoil it here, instead.
Frank Underwood loved another man in college!
The reveal happens mid-season, in the eighth episode, when Frank visits his alma mater, The Sentinel (The Citadel). What makes it interesting is that the moment between he and lover Tim Corbet is one of the few moments of real warmth and affection in House of Cards. It’s subtle but ultimately of little consequence, at least so far. The climax of the first season is Underwood’s cinching the vice presidential nomination. Will this fact doom him? It appears to be “no,” since his would-be lover, Tim (David Andrews), is also married, with grown-up children no less.
What if, however, House of Cards was a white-male anti-hero drama about a gay villain? That at least would be new and interesting. That Kevin Spacey is allegedly gay himself, and reluctant to talk about it, makes it almost remarkable.
If you take this away from the show, I’m not sure if House of Cards is offering anything new, save for gorgeous cinematography and some politically relevant stories about fracking in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale.
The glut of these of anti-hero dramas has been overwhelming, and yet gay/queer narratives have been shut out. Years ago, Kathryn Bigelow was slated to direct John Logan’s HBO’s drama, The Miraculous Year, about a gay Broadway composer. The project never materialized, presumably because it wasn’t very good.
The fun of watching an anti-hero drama, these days, is seeing how villainous the writers are willing to make our leads. In The Sopranos, Tony did evil things, but the show ultimately shied away from branding him a psychopath. Mad Men‘s Don is mortally flawed, elegantly so. Breaking Bad took it to the next level, however, and Walter White went from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to full-fledged villain in under five seasons. It’s a stunning transformation: Vince Gilligan gets viewers to root for the cowboy, then turns it back on us.
Where can House of Cards take us that we haven’t already been? Underwood is a villain. He’s everything we hate about Washington: disdainful of big ideas, cozy with corporations, manipulative, self-serving and short-sighted. His only redemption is his love for his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), and she is also not too pleasant. She sold out her non-profit to a corporation and fired an expecting mother. Robin Wright does an excellent job exuding glamor and poise while tearing people’s hearts out.
What we have, then, is a very expensive, well-acted, beautifully shot drama about two loathsome people hell-bent on power no matter the consequence.
For what it’s worth it looks like Claire and Frank have little in the way of sexual chemistry, and I suspect Claire knows about his past. Their marriage is a business arrangement. Frank also doesn’t appear too enthused by Zoe Barnes, feminist-nightmare and reporter for news organizations with silly names like Washington Herald (clearly the Post, with its tenacious female editor) and Slugline (TPM? Daily Kos? HuffPo?).
Netflix CEO Reed Hasting has compared House of Cards and its all-at-once release strategy to reading a book. The idea is that writer Beau Willimon (writer of the beautiful, if empty, Ides of March) doesn’t have to follow the traditional rules about cliffhangers and exposition, because many viewers will watch it all in under a week or two. And can watch it again, easily, when season two comes out. Willimon has said plot points come up in season two that are only suggested in season one, and that web distribution made it easier to do so.
Netflix means we can’t judge House of Cards until the end, when all is revealed.
I’m hoping, then, for the revelation of Underwood as a gay man, one just as power-hungry and craven as the rest of Washington’s power brokers (or, hey, maybe he’ll turn around!).
I hope not for the narrative, which is fine, if filled with more than a few plot holes.
Because it’s not television.
At least, I hope it isn’t.