House of Cards: Is it television?

By on Feb 15, 2013 in Inner Monologues |

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In the latest bold step in television, Netflix is getting in on the original-content game with the debut of its series House of Cards — and the press has made much ballyhoo over the development. (Yes, I just wanted to use the word ballyhoo.)

Even more interestingly, Netflix released all 13 episodes at once, to the delight of fans and to the dismay of those fans’ social lives and sleep schedules.

Chiming in to the ballyhoo myself, I wonder: does the show fit into the definition of television?

Isn’t series television, by its very nature, supposed to come out piecemeal?

Furthermore, if Netflix uploads and makes readily available an entire television season in bulk, what’s the qualitative difference between that and a movie?

Okay, sure, the saga is split into episodes. And yes, each episodes might have a narrative structure unto itself. (I haven’t seen the show yet, so I have no idea how it’s paced; but I do hear that the episodes don’t often end on cliffhangers like conventional serialized dramas do.)

Even Beau Willimon, the writer who adapted House of Cards from the original BBC miniseries (which, in turn, was adapted from a Michael Dobbs novel) tells The New York Times that he imagines a future without such episodic divisions, saying that television “might even dispense with episodes altogether. You might just get eight straight hours or ten straight hours, and you decide where to pause.”

Yes, just like you would if you were watching a movie at home.

And if you’re still not convinced that House of Cards could be designated a “movie,” consider this: We still call play a “play” regardless of whether is has zero intermissions, one, two, or seven. So why couldn’t movies be split into hour-long segments on a streaming service like Netflix?

The conventional format for series television calls for installments to come at regular intervals, and those intervals are usually the span of a week. (Of course, for some reason we’re still entrenched in this September-to-May network TV season model, so hiatuses and reruns make said intervals more semi-regular than regular.)

Another point of conflict that makes House of Cards a square peg in a round hole: Weekly episodes, by accident or by design, give viewers two opportunities: to absorb the material and to react to it.

Part of the identity of television which distinguishes it from other media — in my mind, at least — is the interaction between the creators and the viewers, interaction which has become much more instantaneous and accessible in recent years because of this particular medium, the Internet.

Yet House of Cards subverts this interaction by filming its entire season before any episodes “air.” Yes, the creators could respond to fan feedback in the series’s potential second season but no more so than big-screen screenwriters respond to feedback for film sequels.

The Cards model also limits fans’ interaction amongst themselves. Fast Company, on its particularly beautiful blog Co.Design, wonders if House of Cards is “anti-social” television, citing a New York Times article about how the series is challenging to talk about online since every viewer is watching the series at a different pace. With conventional TV, fans on social media know that a large percentage of viewers watch a given episode within a week of its air date.

That Times article quotes blogging pioneer Dave Winer: “We need to invent new communication systems, where only people who have made it through Episode X can discuss with others who have made it exactly that far.”

Hear hear! We definitely need these new systems, especially if more and more distributors stream more “television” episodes and seasons en masse.

Doing so also encourages “binge viewing,” which is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s fantastic to watch the show at your own pace, never having to wait for more story and being able to watch an installment with the previous one still fresh in mind. (There aren’t even “previously on” segments to preface each episode of Cards, I read.) On the other hand, binge viewing is almost like an overdose: too much television for the mind (and often, body) to handle with no time to enjoy the effects. (Wow, I’m really making the most of this analogy.)

Moral of the story: House of Cards is not serialized and, thus, not interactive. Therefore, I decree, it’s not so much television — at least, not by the definition to which I’ve become accustomed.

Still, I am wildly curious about the series. I love the cast, especially Spacey; I find David Fincher’s direction rapturous; and — on an even more superficial note — I’m obsessed with the title design, the font in which design-lovers more knowledgeable than I have identified as Virus’s Bourgeois.

I know this argument might be purely academic, but it’s interesting to ponder the ramifications of Netflix’s grand experiment. It’s a mutation of the form of television — to me, at least — but it could be the next natural step in the medium’s evolution.