“We’re in a Very Gray Area”: Looking Back on ‘House of Cards’, Chapter One

House of Cards might be gearing up for its third season, but the very first episode of the series is the most telling indication of how Netflix is helping television break new ground.

Among the first of Nexflix’s now hefty portfolio of original series, House of Cards has a lot that sets it apart from the traditional TV shows that we’re used to watching. Produced and distributed uniquely for online viewers, the series seems to relish in the freedom Netflix has provided it just as much as its fans savor the cold, calculating evil that is Frank Underwood. While many are eagerly looking forward to the release of the third season, I’ve also been looking back on the very first episode, trying to parse through what made this show feel so unique from the very start.

Unlike the vast majority of television programs, House of Cards never had a pilot phase, and consequentially has no “pilot” in the usual sense of the term. Pilot episodes are typically a means of proving a concept’s viability before the network makes a long-term commitment, but Netflix signed on for 26 episodes before a single scene was filmed. Chapter One is therefore precisely that: the first installment of a much longer narrative, and hardly a self-contained story.

The departure of House of Cards from the conventional pilot structure may best be understood by taking a step back to briefly consider the context of the series’ release in relation to comparable but more “traditional” programs. At first glance, House of Cards seems to obey a relatively recent trend in “highbrow” television programing that focuses on an enigmatic antihero (typically a white, middle-aged male) engaged in a struggle for power. From this perspective, Frank Underwood seems to follow in the tradition of Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White, to name a few of the most notable examples. Recognized for pushing the boundaries of what constitutes a “likeable” television hero, The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad all seem to strike a careful balance in the depiction of their protagonists. The pilot episodes of all three series seem to directly address the question surely asked by network executives: How can audiences come back and root for this morally compromised character, week after week?

All three pilots seem to respond with initially humanizing depictions of their heroes, allowing the viewer an opportunity to align with them before witnessing the darker sides of their behavior. We first meet Tony Soprano at his most vulnerable, talking to his psychiatrist about his anxieties; Don Draper is introduced as a suave, hard-working (and even unprejudiced) master of his craft, only revealing himself at the very end of the episode to be a cheating bastard with a wife and kids; Walter White’s first appearance in his underwear almost seems more appropriate to Cranston’s previous role on Malcolm in the Middle than to a dark, high-stakes drama. In each of these series, the pilot seems to make the case for how and why the hero will be made accessible to the viewer, playing down more questionable characteristics in favor of humanizing and relatable portrayals.

So, turning back to House of Cards, we can see why it may have been perceived as a bit risky by the standards of television to have Frank Underwood strangle a dog to death within the first 30 seconds of the series. By beginning with perhaps the ultimate in cliché villain taboos, the series announces itself as one distinctly not concerned with the ratings system that controls the majority of the television industry. Clearly, it was never subjected to the notes of network executives who care only about pleasing advertisers through mass appeal.

While The Sopranos made sure to show the audience a scene of Tony affectionately feeding some baby ducks before bringing us into the darker side of his world, House of Cards immediately establishes Underwood as the harsh, Machiavellian figure that he is, almost daring the viewer to continue deeper into his twisted worldview. (A viewer who cannot stomach an injured dog being put out of its misery in this fashion is unlikely to enjoy the subsequent decisions that Underwood makes.)

From Spacey’s first sideways glance at the camera, we’re brought into Underwood’s private world, made to feel complicit in his scheme. We might feel guilty, but not so much that we won’t be dying to see what sick idea he comes up with next. Unlike other comparable series that seek to justify the likability of their heroes in their pilot episodes, House of Cards seems to depend on the viewer’s aversion to Underwood in keeping its audience engaged. However, this depiction of Underwood suggests a different set of intentions for the series than might be found in the other programs discussed.

While the other series had to prove the sustainability of their respective concepts in their pilots, House of Cards was under no such pressure, and therefore does not need to allow for the possibility of keeping Underwood’s story going for seven or eight seasons (or even six seasons and a movie). While a long-term investment in such a character might be difficult without a strongly humanizing element — e.g., Tony Soprano’s therapy sessions, Walter White’s devotion to his family — characters destined for shorter narratives arguably have more flexibility in being inaccessible, or even repugnant.

Free from the constraints of network ratings, House of Cards has no burden to prove that audiences would still tolerate Underwood’s manipulative behavior week after week, instead promising a contained narrative that will likely end in his comeuppance. A figure straight out of a Shakespearean tragedy, Underwood begins a recognizable story that guarantees both perverse entertainment as he mercilessly claws his way to the top, as well as the strong possibility of a well-deserved downfall that helps to justify our enjoyment of the former.

The promise of a more limited narrative than might be found in the traditional television format also helps to explain the strikingly slow pace of the first episode. While many pilots face the task of proving the series’ potential for repeatability following some semblance of a formula (Walter faces a new obstacle in his struggle to balance his family life with his drug business; Don has a new ad campaign to work on), House of Cards points in a single narrative direction, immediately commencing on a larger storyline that comprises not only the entirety of the season, but establishes the trajectory for the series as a whole. Unlike The Sopranos, which allows room for “alternative” episodes that stray from the show’s primary focus (see Season Three’s Pine Barrens), House of Cards stays focused on the single, albeit complex, narrative of Underwood’s quest for power and revenge.

From this perspective, then, the series might be seen as having as much in common with films and mini-series as it does with traditional television: its task is not necessarily to prove a reliable and repeatable model, only that it has a worthwhile and engaging story to tell. Especially when one considers the prevalence of the binge-watching approach to the series, the similarities between the experience of viewing House of Cards and that of traditional television begin to fade, and we might even begin to wonder if it falls into the category of “television” at all.

It’s quite likely that the vast majority of the audience did not space each episode-viewing a week apart, and therefore the type of relationship formed with the characters and their world is quite different from the average television experience: most viewers “got to know” Frank Underwood in a matter of hours, rather than weeks, and followed the complex, gradually-unfolding narrative in a few days, rather than a few months. One can only speculate as to what the audience’s responses would have been if House of Cards had aired in a more traditional format, but such considerations certainly beg the question of whether or not viewers would be so willing to invest in such a slow-paced and deeply disturbing narrative if faced with the decision to tune in week after week, and not simply to click “Next”.

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