I Fold

by Dan H

Dan was not impressed by the new House of Cards
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Netflix’s new series House of Cards (based very, very loosely on the UK series of the same name) has attracted a lot of attention on the intarwebs not so much for its content as for its structure. Abigail Nussbaum bills it as “eminently put-downable” and links to this AV Club article which suggests – I think a little histrionically – that the series’ business model could spell “the end of the golden age of TV.”

Before I talk about the show itself, I thought I’d talk a bit about the “golden age of TV”. To be honest, I’m not sure “golden age” is ever really a sensible way to describe anything – particularly not a time in which one is actually living. Do I like a lot of modern television? Well of course I do, but that isn’t because we’re living in a “golden age” for broadcast TV, it’s because we’re living at a time when TV is being tailored to the tastes of the sorts of people who are watching TV today, instead of the sorts of people who were watching TV in 1957. Perhaps this is a UK/US thing but I don’t really think television is better now than it was ten, twenty, or even thirty years ago. It’s certainly true that were producing more of a certain kind of television than we were a decade ago but that doesn’t put us in a golden age of television, just in a golden age of television about the crisis in masculine identity, in the industrialised west, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century (this, as Nussbaum herself observes is the central theme running through everything from The Sopranos to Mad Men to Breaking Bad - it shows up again in House of Cards and I’m really getting quite sick of it).

House of Cards was created by and for Netflix, and the thirteen-episode series was released all in one go, so that people could watch it at whatever rate they wanted, rather than being locked into one episode per week. Jaime Weinman points out here that this causes some issues, in that the whole structure of an episodic TV Drama is based on the assumption that you’re trying to cover a certain gap in the schedule. Without that limitation, putting together thirteen episodes out of sheer cultural inertia is rather silly. Or at least, it’s silly if you’re trying to tell a single coherent story like you would in a movie or a novel. Without the constraints of network TV, episodes of a television show become like chapters of a book (and indeed Heroes and House of Cards even call their episodes “chapters”) and it makes no sense to force yourself to produce more than you need to tell the story you want to tell.

Some people also seem to be suggesting that watching TV in bursts (or “binges” as some disparagingly put it) disguises some of the flaws in a show. I don’t think that’s actually true. I think it’s probably true that if you don’t have to put time aside every week to watch a show, you’re more likely to carry on watching it (in a vague, disengaged sort of way) than if you have to make sure you catch each new episode as it comes out, but that doesn’t mean you’re suspending your critical faculties. It just means that you’re more likely to do something if it’s easier to do. And I’ve always found that watching several episodes of a show in a row actually makes me more aware of its shortcomings, not less. You see trends more easily and – paradoxically – are less patient with padding. I find it much easier to forgive a show in which nothing happens for six weeks watching one episode a week than a show in which nothing happens for six episodes when I’ve watched them close together. I’m not sure why this is, I think it’s because I resent having my time wasted far more when it’s three hours at a time, rather than an hour a week.

So I agree that if Netflix makes a go of producing direct-to-stream TV series, it probably will involve a change in the structure of television, but I don’t think it will make TV worse. In fact while the internet at large seems to think that this will be the end of TV as we know it, I tend to think of it as a return to TV as I knew it for most of my life. I live in the UK and to us “TV series” usually means “six episodes” and sometimes (in the case of – for example – Sherlock) can mean as little as three. Fawlty Towers and The Office only made twelve episodes ever (excluding specials, in the case of the latter). The 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was a mere six episodes in total, even Brideshead Revisited was only eleven. To my British eyes, the dominant US distribution model – massive twenty-six episode “seasons” consisting almost entirely of recaps, filler, and recapitulation of old ideas has always been a terrible way to make TV. Or at least, a terrible way to make the kind of TV that people are worried that we’ll lose if we switch to an on-demand distribution model. The episodic structure will still work great for sitcoms, detective shows, soaps and superheroes – anything which is designed to be consumed in discrete hour or half-hour chunks and churned out until everybody gets bored or runs out of ideas. It’s only going to cause problems for the kind of serious, plot-driven dramas which should (from my partial, prejudiced and ignorant perspective) never have been padded out to twenty-six hours in the first place.

Case in point: House of Cards.

Kyra and I watched the new House of Cards back to back with the 1990 UK original. Or rather, we watched the first four episodes back to back with the 1990 UK original, and then the original finished, because the story of House of Cards does not take thirteen hours to tell. Needless to say, this article will henceforth contain spoilers for both the original UK series and the US remake.

Premise and Protagonist

Both series begin similarly, with their central characters (Francis Urquhart in the UK, Francis Underwood in the US) being turned down for a high-ranking job in government. Despite the superficial similarity, the differences between the shows are immediately marked. Urquhart is an overprivileged old boy, whose expectation of a senior government post is grounded in almost nothing, and whose anger comes in large part from the realisation that nobody really takes him seriously at all. Underwood is a self-made maverick Machiavellian supergenius and everybody knows it, he expects to be given a senior government post because the President explicitly promised to make him Secretary of State, and then reneged on that promise despite the fact that – it is strongly implied – Underwood was the driving force behind their successful election campaign.

Both character return home in a rage, and have conversations with their wives. Urquhart fumes about how weak and short-sighted the Prime Minister is, and his wife (Elizabeth) gently suggests that perhaps he would be a better leader for the party. Underwood seethes about betrayal, and his wife (Claire) expresses disappointment that he … umm … isn’t being as evil as she thought he would be? I’m paraphrasing for effect, of course, but that really does seem to be about the shape of it. Anyway, the scene ends with Underwood committing himself to a very serious but never terribly well articulated campaign of vengeance.

Right out of the gate, the two series are telling completely different stories. House of Cards (UK) is the story of a very clever and very ruthless, but ultimately very ordinary and rather petty man, who makes a play for power because he suddenly realises how little he is respected by the institution that he has served his entire life. House of Cards (US) is the story of an alpha-male maverick supergenius who the President of the United States sells out for no clear reason, and who decides to arbitrarily wreck shit as a consequence. Again, I paraphrase for effect, but that’s roughly the impression I got from the first episode and it was reinforced for most of the rest of the series.

Part of the problem here comes from the fundamental differences between the UK and US political systems. Obviously I know the UK system far, far better than the US system but from where I sat Francis Urquhart’s plan seemed extremely plausible: the PM is weak, there’s probably going to be a leadership crisis sooner rather than later, put yourself in a position to take over, which you can do because as Chief Whip you know a lot of dirty little secrets and nobody thinks you’re a threat because nobody takes you seriously. You can do this sort of thing in England – we have power struggles at the top of political parties all the time and it’s a completely ordinary situation. John Major and Gordon Brown both managed to become Prime Minister without actually winning a general election (and Major secured re-election as well).

The United States, as far as I know, doesn’t work that way. Instead there is a clear line of succession in which “Chief Whip” simply doesn’t feature. This means that Underwood is forced to follow a completely Byzantine plan which seems to involve (spoilers) nobbling a high-profile Education bill, so that he will gain “influence”, so he can persuade the Democratic National Committee to run a completely hopeless candidate for Governor of Philadelphia, so that he can make the completely hopeless candidate fail, so that they can bring the Vice President into the race at the last minute, so that the Vice President will have to stand down to be Governor (because obviously if your first candidate had his reputation completely trashed, the guy you bring in to replace him is guaranteed to win) so that Underwood can take over as VP and then (I assume, but do not know, because this is as far as we get in thirteen hours of television) presumably get the President of the way as well (which will presumably take another thirteen hours of screen time) so he can take over via the Presidential Line of Succession.

Of course the UK original has its share of implausible events as well. There’s a sequence in the first episode where Urquhart opens a bank account in the name of the Prime Minister’s brother in order to frame him for insider trading. In this sequence, for no readily apparent reason, he wears an honest-to-god false moustache. But there is clear blue water between the sometimes faintly silly shenanigans of Francis Urquhart and the bizarre, outlandish, utterly convoluted, completely absurd and totally po-faced scheming of Francis Underwood.

Speeches and Soliloquies

Both Underwood and Urquhart address the viewer directly, acting as guides to the political labyrinths in which they operate, but also taking the opportunity to control not only the events unfolding around them, but the very narrative in which they appear. Urquhart’s asides are urbane, self-effacing and conspiratorial - he presents himself to the audience exactly the way he presents himself to his colleagues, a charming but ultimately harmless old man who has lived a long and fulfilling life in selfless service to his country. When this narration is at odds with his actions, it creates a cognitive dissonance which is crucial to the success of the series. We trust Urquhart because we feel like he trusts us, like he is giving us a secret inside peek into a world to which we would otherwise be denied access. Underwood also addresses the audience the same way he addresses his colleagues – with a weird and inconsistent mix of bluster, bravado and exposition.

Urquhart’s narration persuades the audience to sympathise with him in spite of his actions. Even when he’s actually spiking a man’s cocaine with rat poison, you can’t quite bring yourself to believe that he’s a bad person, because he’s so damned affable about the whole process. Listening to his soothing, classically trained voice you almost forget that you’re watching him condemn a man to a miserable, painful, ignominious death.

Underwood’s narration, by contrast, urges the audience to sympathise with him because of his actions. Every time he throws his weight around, or bullies an underling, or tells a man that “all you’ll get from me is cum on your face” we are invited to see it as cool. His narration doesn’t illuminate anything, it’s just more of the same dickwaving nonsense you get in his straight dialogue.

Both Urquhart and Underwood spend a lot of time talking about their motivations. Urquhart is very keen to remind the audience that he is merely a humble servant, a back-room boy, content to do play his little part for Queen and Country. Underwood tells us that he likes power, understands power, is interested in power and wants to get more power.

The original House of Cards is rightly regarded as a classic of the television medium, and one of the reasons it is such a classic is that it makes tremendously clever use of the medium. When I first saw the series, years ago, I assumed that the to-camera narration was a feature that the series had inherited from the novel on which it was based. In fact it was a device invented purely for the televised series, and it works on a subtle and powerful level. At any given time, the viewer experiences the story from two different perspectives simultaneously – you get the story as you are seeing it played out in front of you, and the story as narrated by Urquhart. It is only in the last hour of the series that it becomes clear how different these two stories are, that you realise that the man who blackmails his colleagues and frames innocent alcoholics is exactly the sort of man who would throw a journalist off a roof, and that the charming public servant who wouldn’t dream of putting himself forward if he hadn’t been forced to it was an act that he put on not only for the public’s benefit, but for yours as well.

The asides and monologues in House of Cards (US) serve no such purpose. All they do is provide Francis Underwood with an opportunity to talk about what a big-dicked power-loving badass he is. When Francis Underwood says of his wife “I love that woman, I love her like a shark loves blood” he isn't telling us anything of substance about his character, or his relationship with his wife, or his feelings about her. He's just establishing that he's the sort of person who says cool, edgy-sounding things.

When we first meet Francis Urquhart in the UK series, he is standing in a gallery, watching the comings and goings of the Tory inner circle, denying that he has any political ambitions whatsoever (“Who me? I'm just the Chief Whip. I put the stick about. I make 'em jump.”) When we first meet Francis Underwood he is strangling a dog and making a speech about how to get ahead you have to do what is necessary even if other people might think you're a psychopath. Again, I paraphrase, but only slightly.

Murders and Machiavels

The original UK series of House of Cards ends with not two but three murders. Once he has no further use for Roger O'Neil, Urquhart eliminates him by poisoning his cocaine. When Mattie Storin goes from being an asset to a liability, he does not hesitate to throw her off a building. And at last, when he has completed his rise to power, he cements his position by killing the audience itself, discarding his playful, confiding persona and switching off the camera with a last, curt “you may think that, I couldn't possibly comment.”

Urquhart is Machiavellian in the truest sense. He either pampers people – giving them everything they ask and bending over backwards to make himself available and accommodating – or he crushes them. And when he achieves his goal, he quickly and efficiently sets about eliminating everybody that supported him on the way there – even the audience in whom he had confided with such seeming earnestness. Urquhart’s manipulations are so complete and so ruthless that he makes even the viewer a pawn in his game.

Somewhere along the line, however, “Machiavellian” seems to have taken on a secondary meaning. Rather than “ruthlessly pragmatic” people now seem to use it to mean “needlessly circuitous.” Francis Underwood is “Machiavellian” in this secondary sense. As ruthless power-mongers go, he's actually extraordinarily gutless. He only murders one person (Zoe Barnes being far too much of a Strong Female Character to get thrown off of anything) and when he does kill somebody it's in this completely half-arsed way that doesn't seem to get him anything. And yes, he ultimately gets what he wants (we assume – it's hard to tell because he never actually tells us what he wants, unless you count “power”) but it is very hard to see how the things he achieves at the end of the series are actually caused by the actions he takes at the start. If his whole plan was to go after the Vice Presidency then why didn't he just take the VP out directly? After all a major plotline in the first couple of episodes is his plan to take down the new Secretary of State – somebody so whiter-than-white that he has to dig up a vaguely anti-Israeli article from a student magazine that the man edited two decades ago – surely the Vice President would be an easier target?

Again, this might just be a result of my being more familiar with the UK political system than that of the US, but every time Urquhart makes a move, I can see why he makes it, what it gets him, and how it brings him closer to his goal. Underwood's actions just seem random and arbitrary. Just off the top of my head:

What's the deal with the Education Bill arc? Does he deliberately provoke a three-month strike so that he can then defeat it and look like a hero? Because I'm pretty sure that just makes him look incompetent. And then what's the deal with that clean water for Philadelphia thing that he ropes his wife in on? Does he want the bill to go through, or doesn't he? He uses the bill as bait to get Russo to run, but he only wants Russo to run so he can make him withdraw, so why does it matter if the bill passes or not? Why does he kill Russo exactly? To stop him going to the police? About what? The fact that he got caught drink-driving with a hooker? He's already stood down and “disgraced former congressman who admits to having a booze coke and hookers habit was drunk with a hooker” just doesn't seem like a big story. What's supposed to be going on with Remi and Sancorp and that old guy with the nuclear power stations that he talks to at the end (and who apparently blocked Underwood's appointment as Secretary of State because he needed him in the House to fight tariffs – something Underwood has never been asked to do by anybody). Why does he start fucking Zoe? And having started, why does he stop? What's he actually planning on using her for anyway? He only leaks her a couple of stories, and those are pretty early in the game, then he just sort of forgets all about her.

In structuring their stories, both the US and the UK series borrow the strategies of stage magic. The UK original uses the feigned intimacy that I wrote about back in 2008 when I was talking about Derren Brown – Urquhart confides in the audience and lets us into just enough of his schemes that we feel confident in him, just as Mattie does, and so we fail to see that he is manipulating us as well. The US series uses a more general stage magic technique, which is to disguise its methods by not telling you what it's going to do until after it has done it. Just as a magician cannot tell you where the card will appear until after they have successfully planted it, so the US House of Cards cannot tell you what Underwood's plan is until after it has been achieved. If we knew from the first episode that Underwood intended to remove the Vice President by making him run for Governor of Philadelphia we would have been wise to the trick and we would have noticed how paper-thin the whole scheme was (just as the techniques behind most magic tricks are paper-thin once you know what to look for).

The cheapest, easiest, and laziest way to write a Machiavellian manipulator is to have a bunch of arbitrary shit happen and declare, in the end, that this was the Machiavel's scheme all along. Which is basically what the US series does. Repeatedly.

Power and Penises

Power is a major theme in both series of House of Cards. In the UK original, Francis Urquhart is confronted first with his own powerlessness – as the Prime Minister dismisses his advice out of hand and refuses to appoint him to the Cabinet – and then with his own power, when his wife suggests to him that he possesses the knowledge and influence required to lead the party.

Urquhart’s story deals with power on a variety of levels, and Urquhart's power has several sources. Sometimes, it comes simply from his position as Chief Whip, which grants him access to secrets that he can use to influence other people. At other times, it is based in his background of unutterable social privilege. At still others, his power comes from the very fact that he seems so powerless, people trust him because everybody believes that Francis Urquhart is this harmless old duffer who's probably a bit past it. As the series progresses, it becomes clear that a lot of his power also comes from his willingness to do completely outrageous things if he has to – be they putting on a false moustache to frame a man for insider trading, or flinging his lover from the parliamentary roof garden. And because Urquhart so skilfully controls our perceptions of him we can never really know how much he intended from the start, how much he was drawn in by his own machinations, and how far the situation go away from him. When he tells us that poisoning O'Reilly was for the man's own good is he lying to himself, or just to us?

House of Cards (US) also deals with the theme of Power. It does this by having Francis Underwood use the word “Power” at least three times an episode (by contrast, I don't think the UK series uses the word at all). Francis Urquhart exercises power through clear, specifically explained channels – he uses secrets he has found out as chief whip, he blackmails people, he ingratiates himself to those in authority and encourages them to isolate themselves from everybody apart from him. Francis Underwood uses “Power” like it's some kind of metagame mechanic in a board game. He just sort of … makes things happen. Like he decides who gets appointed Secretary of State by, umm, deciding it? Telling Zoe to blog about it (because that is exactly how the media works in the twenty-first century)? He says it will happen and it happens. Because he has Power.

And an awful lot of the time Francis Underwood's power seems to literally reside in his penis.

The show is extraordinarily fixated on male-male bonding – from the scene where Underwood stares at a guy's dick in the bathroom and comments about its girth, to the bit where he strips Russo naked and dumps him in a bath, to the revelation that he had a homosexual affair in college. It seems to present a society in which political power is not merely metaphorically or symbolically linked to the male member, but literally derived from it.

The most obvious example of this is the teacher's strike. Underwood fucks this situation up completely. There is nothing right about the way he handles anything. He gets distracted at crucial moments, humiliates himself on public television, tries to make political capital by having a brick thrown through his own window and cocks that up as well, somehow scores points because of a charity gala his wife holds even though it has nothing to do with anything, and finally – when the strike has dragged on for three months, making the president look weak and incompetent and holding up a bill which he made a key pledge to support in his inauguration address – inviting the lobbyist behind the strike to a meeting in his office where he admits to throwing the brick himself. Then, at the last second, just when it is abundantly clear to anybody with half a brain that he has fucked this up as badly as any human being can fuck up anything he starts shouting at his opponent and ranting about how huge his dick is. Literally. This exchange ends with Underwood pinning the lobbyist against the door and yelling “the only thing you'll get from me is cum on your face”. And this actually makes the guy cave.

I guess Chairman Mao was right – political power really does grow from the barrel of a gun.

Even more ludicrously, having finally used the power of his massive dick to resolve the teacher's strike, Underwood goes back to the President, and the President is extremely impressed. Underwood later exposits (in yet another situation when the President has done something completely fucking nonsensical because Underwood told him to) that “this is why the Education Bill was so important – it gave me influence when I needed it”. Because apparently when you tell somebody that it's important to get a job done and they tell you they can do it, and then spend three months fucking everything up as badly as they can possibly be fucked up, and you get personally blamed for the consequences of their fuckups, and then they finally just about manage to salvage something that looks a little bit like the job you wanted them to do in the first place, you will obviously decide to make them your most trusted advisor.

Again, people tell me that this works because Francis Underwood is “Machiavellian”. I suspect that the people who tell me this have never actually read Machiavelli, because this is the exact opposite of political reality as Machiavelli described it. Nowhere in The Prince does it say “you can piss people off as much as you like, as long as you do vaguely what you said you would” or “the best way to confront your political rivals is to get stuck in a long drawn-out pissing contest that makes you, your enemies, and your direct superiors look terrible” or “everything will be okay as long as you have a massive penis.”

Long-time FB readers will know that I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the old “show, don't tell” maxim, but if I needed a short, not particularly helpful summary of the problems with the US House of Cards that would be it. We are told that Underwood both knows and understands power, that power is a key theme of the show, but we are never really shown how power is derived or wielded – Underwood just suffers arbitrary setbacks followed by equally arbitrary victories.

Early in the series Underwood explains his contempt for Remi – the mysterious black man who works for the sinister Sancorp (some kind of evil drilling company which is often responsible for the aforesaid arbitrary setbacks) – declaring that he was disappointed that the man “chose money over power.” But the show itself makes no real distinction between the two, and indeed an awful lot of Underwood's biggest power plays involve spending a crapton of cash on something. Indeed it never really distinguishes between money, power and prestige (this last being what Underwood seems truly interested in attaining – why else would he be willing to swap the extremely influential role of Chief Whip for the more public but potentially less influential position of VP). The show is “about power” only in the trivial sense that it has powerful people in it. You might as well say that it is about a rib shack.

Women and Whatever

The one thing I thought the remake of House of Cards would do better than the original was women. In the UK series, after all, Mattie Storin is pretty much the only female character who gets to say more than three words at a time.

In the US remake things seem a little better. Underwood's wife has a prestigious career of her own, running a nebulously defined water-based charity. Some episodes even pass the Bechdel test (although these scenes mostly revolve around Claire's job, something which later in the series seems to be interesting only insofar as it reflects on Francis).

It all starts to go a bit south with Zoe Barnes – the Mattie Storin analogue in US series. Where Storin is an upcoming young professional – bright, determined and relentless, albeit taken in by Urquhart – Zoe Barnes is basically a Strong Female Character by numbers. So while Storin sometimes doesn't see eye-to-eye with her employers, Barnes is constantly being spat at by Stupid Newspaper People who Hate Her Because She Is Young And A Woman. The series is firmly convinced that only misogynists and stick-in-the-muds could possibly object to Zoe's behaviour despite the fact that it is – without fail – ragingly unprofessional. Although I suppose if we are to judge Barnes by the same standards that we judge Underwood we should assume that her complete inability to do her actual job makes her a Machiavellian genius.

Mattie Storin secures her first interview with Francis Urquhart by going to his house on spec, arriving at exactly the time when he needs a friend in the press, and not taking no for an answer. Although she never thinks he could be as evil as he truly turns out to be, she suspects from a very early point that he isn't telling her everything (we see several scenes of her meticulously checking and rechecking her recordings of their conversations – recordings he does not know she has made). Zoe Barnes gets her first interview with Underwood because she sees him check out her ass the opera, and then goes around to his house in a low-cut dress. Later, when Underwood suggests that he doesn't trust her, Barnes strips in front of him, and encourages him to take photographs of her naked. This, I should probably remind you, is the woman whose defining feature (insofar as she has one) is that she understands New Media.

When Storin and Urquhart start sleeping together, it's because she wants to shag him, and he wants to keep her on side. In a strange way, he's actually sleeping with her to further his career, and not the other way around. Mattie just really wants to get into his pants and doesn't get anything out of it apart from, well, orgasms. This subtlety is lost on the US remake, in which Zoe very, very explicitly has sex with Underwood in order to persuade him to give her information (even going so far as to cement his hold over her by voluntarily posing for blackmail pictures). This is a very different, much less interesting story.

By the end of the thirteen hours of House of Cards (US) I was utterly sick of Zoe Barnes (I told Kyra that all that was keeping me watching was the hope that I'd get to see her get thrown off a building – I was only half joking). She has no personality to speak of, shows no spark or initiative. The only information we get about her is second hand through other people – those people being either Good People who think she is an amazing genius journalist who is wasting her time in print media because clearly small indie websites are where all the real political journalism happens nowadays, or Bad People who think she is an immature, irresponsible, unprofessional liability with the emotional maturity of a spoiled six-year old. The Bad People are of course wrong, and only find Zoe's immature, unprofessional behaviour to be immature and unprofessional because they are Bad People who are Jealous because she is Young And A Woman.

Claire, Underwood's wife, is almost the saving grace of the series. Robin Wright is absolutely mesmerising in the role and as is so often the case, I found myself wondering why I couldn't be watching a series about the cold-hearted, ruthless director of a large charitable organisation rather than a series about an old man with a big penis. Unfortunately the big penis show is what we got, and Claire's arc very quickly devolved into classic Woman Plots. Having very carefully established that Claire is every bit Underwood's equal in terms of ruthlessness, determination and ambition, they proceed to make her entire arc about deciding whether or not to stand by her husband – with a side order of handwringing about how she never had children.

Early in the series I was torn about Claire's arcs, because they seemed totally unrelated to the main plot about Underwood, and felt a lot like filler. Later in the series I was merely annoyed by them, because they felt utterly suborned by the main plot. I was briefly impressed when she actually sabotaged one of her husband's plans to save her company, but then it turned out that the plan in question didn't seem to need the thing she sabotaged anyway, which made her look both faithless and powerless in equal measure.

For about half the series I was giving the US remake points for trying. It was, I reasoned, now the twenty-first century, and you couldn't just have the protagonist's wife sit in the background being supportive. She clearly has to do something, so even if her segments feel like either filler or infuriating gender stereotypes, it's probably better than the alternative, which would be to have no women in the series at all.

Then I realised that the alternative would not be to have no women at all, because Francis – with a small change in spelling – is a perfectly unisex name. Once I'd had this realisation a small counterfactual part of me was faintly disappointed that I wasn't watching the story of Frances Underwood, a ruthlessly conniving middle-aged woman who effortlessly manipulates two out of the three branches of the US government.

In Conclusion

I don't think I really have much to say in conclusion to this piece, except to reiterate the comments I made at the beginning – that the US House of Cards represents an interesting experiment in TV distribution models, but is ultimately little more than a mediocre political drama series trading on the name of a far more interesting, far more intelligent series that was produced long before the so called “golden age” of television even began.

So … yeah. House of Cards. It's on Netflix, it's thirteen hours long, which is at least eight hours longer than it needs to be. It's sort of not worth the bother.
Themes: TV & Movies
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Comments (go to latest)
http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 21:35 on 2013-03-03
On golden ages: I think a good indication of whether a artform is experiencing a golden age is less how good the work it produces is (which as you say is a subjective yardstick) and more whether talented and interesting artists are drawn to it, whether venues for it proliferate in different shapes and forms, and whether it dominates the critical, as well as the popular conversation. You're not wrong, of course, that there's something circular about the definition of quality that underpins the golden age mentality, and that it's hard to say what came first, the definition of good TV as naturalistic, character-driven, and focused on the anxieties of a middle-aged, middle-class white male, or the declaration that a raft of shows of this type represented the medium's renaissance (that said, I do think The Sopranos was a cut above nearly everything that preceded in terms of complexity of writing and characterization). But - and I say this as someone who grew up on 90s TV, loved a lot of it, and misses some of the stylistic tics that characterized it and which have become camp and unfashionable in the last decade and a half - I'm seeing so much interesting and varied work being made for TV right now - so much more so than in movies, which is all the more impressive when you consider that TV doesn't have an experimental or independent scene to speak of - that it seems obvious that we're in the middle of a period of flowering for the medium. Alternate distribution streams like Netflix feel like a big part of that.

None of which is to say that I wouldn't like it if the definition of "quality" widened a bit where TV is concerned (and I do think that's slowly happening), but I'm not sure that "golden age" and "quality" are exactly the same thing.
Melanie at 00:06 on 2013-03-04
You see trends more easily and – paradoxically – are less patient with padding.


I think this is true. I strongly prefer... ah, marathons... to just watching a show once a week. Sometimes it IS easier to see patterns/themes/underplots when the whole thing is fresh in my mind (as opposed to connecting something from this week's episode to something that I saw a month ago). I also find it easier to get into and stay in a "watching X show" mindset for a while than to switch gears for an hour/half an hour, once a week. Finally, it makes cliffhangers simultaneously 1)less frustrating, because I'm going to be seeing the next bit soon, and 2)more interesting, because when I watch the next bit, the cliffhanger is fresh in my mind (it's hard to maintain the same amount of interest and curiosity for a week).

To my British eyes, the dominant US distribution model – massive twenty-six episode “seasons” consisting almost entirely of recaps, filler, and recapitulation of old ideas has always been a terrible way to make TV.


We also get "sweeps", a short period of time in which they gather data on viewing habits. Having that concentrated in a specific, small period of time has pretty much the effect you'd expect; they tend to concentrate a certain amount of effort/drama in the episodes that will be aired during sweeps. (From the last time I watched tv regularly, I also remember a thing where shows would have new episodes more or less during the school year, and reruns during the summer. I remember there being season finales at about the same time for every single show I watched regularly.)

...Presumably, releasing an entire show at once could also mitigate the twin problems of shows being 1)canceled before they're actually finished (resulting in dangling plot threads and/or unsatisfying endings) or 2)being dragged out far past their natural ending points because people are still watching and they can still make money off it. Artistically, it seems like a much better idea.

Underwood’s narration, by contrast, urges the audience to sympathise with him because of his actions.


Ooooo, I'll have to remember that distinction. It seems like a useful one.

Nowhere in The Prince does it say ... “everything will be okay as long as you have a massive penis.”


I'm pretty sure it's in that chapter, "Of the things for which Men, and especially Princes, are praised or blamed". ;)
Arthur B at 00:26 on 2013-03-04
On golden ages: I think a good indication of whether a artform is experiencing a golden age is less how good the work it produces is (which as you say is a subjective yardstick) and more whether talented and interesting artists are drawn to it, whether venues for it proliferate in different shapes and forms, and whether it dominates the critical, as well as the popular conversation.

Eh, I can sort of see the merits of this explanation, but on the other hand a) it only really applies if you're interested in the critical conversation in the first place and b) even if you are, the critical conversation is inherently a conversation that is built on hindsight. Imagine if a medium or artist is completely ignored for ages but then in retrospect people rediscover a bunch of works in it and it suddenly gets critical acclaim - the golden age in terms of the reception of the medium/artist might have arisen, but we're now quite distant from the golden age when it comes to the actual production of the works in question.

On the other hand, this:

I say this as someone who grew up on [whatever], loved a lot of it, and misses some of the stylistic tics that characterized it and which have become camp and unfashionable

is a gloriously universal a definition of "golden age", because it's equally true for absolutely everyone. The golden age of mediums which were available in your home from birth will always correspond to the time when you were growing up, the golden age of mediums you encounter later in life will always correspond to your first rush of enthusiasm for them. So what if my golden age isn't your golden age? Neither us can go back in time and revisit it, both of us have ample archival releases to enjoy now that digital delivery has freed people up from the expenses associated with physical products and EBay has freed us from the tyranny of combing second-hand places.
Craverguy at 06:15 on 2013-03-04
And yes, he ultimately gets what he wants (we assume – it's hard to tell because he never actually tells us what he wants, unless you count “power”) but it is very hard to see how the things he achieves at the end of the series are actually caused by the actions he takes at the start. If his whole plan was to go after the Vice Presidency then why didn't he just take the VP out directly?


Indeed it never really distinguishes between money, power and prestige (this last being what Underwood seems truly interested in attaining – why else would he be willing to swap the extremely influential role of Chief Whip for the more public but potentially less influential position of VP).


The producers never intended for the current season to be the whole show (and, in fact, it was renewed for a second season before the first had even been released). Being Vice President is therefore not his end goal, but another step in the overall plan (which is, presumably, to become President himself).

Of course, that plays into your other major criticism, that the show is taking dozens of hours to tell the same story the original told in four episodes.
Arthur B at 07:40 on 2013-03-04
And also another example of broadcast TV logic being applied in a space where the conventions of that medium no longer apply - why wouldn't Netflix decide to greenlight or reject the whole story at once rather than greenlighting it in a piecemeal fashion?

(It's extra silly because the UK House of Cards had a sequel series so if they wanted to do a followup if the first batch of episodes was a success they could have adapted that.)

It sounds to me like Netflix wants so desperately to be taken seriously alongside HBO and others that it's pissing away every advantage of its medium in order to be just like normal television, when the joy of Netflix is that it isn't like normal television.
Craverguy at 08:15 on 2013-03-04
(It's extra silly because the UK House of Cards had a sequel series so if they wanted to do a followup if the first batch of episodes was a success they could have adapted that.)

I actually don't think we can fault them if they decide not to adapt the two sequel series directly, because they're based on issues (the politicization of the monarchy and the Northern Ireland conflict, respectively) that really have no analogue in American politics. I can't really imagine To Play the King with no actual king.
http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 08:48 on 2013-03-04
I can sort of see the merits of this explanation, but on the other hand a) it only really applies if you're interested in the critical conversation in the first place and b) even if you are, the critical conversation is inherently a conversation that is built on hindsight

Maybe it seems that way to you because of a), but b) is absolutely not true. When I say "critical conversation" I'm not talking about historical perspective. I'm talking about something that is happening right now, about an enormous flowering of criticism and discussion of TV. I'm talking about websites like Television Without Pity and The AV Club, superstar TV critics like Alan Sepinwell, respected TV reviews in venues like The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The London Review of Books, and of course blogs and online discussion. I'm talking about what the culture is interested in, and for the moment, that is TV.

On the other hand, this:

I say this as someone who grew up on [whatever], loved a lot of it, and misses some of the stylistic tics that characterized it and which have become camp and unfashionable

is a gloriously universal a definition of "golden age"


Well, it's not my definition of a golden age - in fact I was suggesting it precisely as a refutation of that definition, as a way of distinguishing between "I liked the TV of this period" and "TV experienced a creative flowering during this period."
Arthur B at 09:31 on 2013-03-04
I'm talking about websites like Television Without Pity and The AV Club, superstar TV critics like Alan Sepinwell, respected TV reviews in venues like The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The London Review of Books, and of course blogs and online discussion. I'm talking about what the culture is interested in, and for the moment, that is TV.

But my point is that it's possible for all that to be happening but, at the same time, for the critical consensus to be "actually, TV is currently in the doldrums, standards have really slipped over the last few years" and for a lot of the critical conversation to be how bad TV is. (I am not saying that is what is happening now, I am saying that it is something which it is possible to happen, so there's nothing absolutely requiring the golden age of a particular medium to coincide with widespread critical attention being lavished on it.)
http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 10:12 on 2013-03-04
But that wasn't my only criteria for a golden age: I also listed the influx of interesting artists into the medium, the proliferation of venues for it, and an increase in styles and approaches taken to it. All of which is also happening (aside from the fact that the critical conversation I mentioned is far from negative).
Dan H at 10:41 on 2013-03-04
Woo! Comments.

@wrongquestions

I think we might be using the term "golden age" slightly differently (and I suspect that you and Arthur are talking at slightly cross purposes). It's certainly true that there's more criticism and discussion of TV now than there was thirty years ago, but then again there's been an increase in criticism and discussion of pretty much *everything* relative to thirty years ago thanks to the rise of new media. Indeed I've heard very similar arguments to these made about video games (hell there's a guy writing a regular video games column for *Forbes* of all things). So I don't think it's true that "what the culture is interested in ... is TV" - at least not more so than thirty years ago. The power of television as a medium has been understood since the 1960s at least.

So what you see as a creative flowering, I see as the continuation of a general trend. There's some innovative stuff, and a whole bunch of things that *copy* the innovative stuff (sometimes improving on it, sometimes not) there's some good writing and some crappy writing, and it's been the same way for decades.

Incidentally, if you google, right now, for the phrase "golden age of television" the top three links are rather fascinating. The first is - of course - good old Wikipedia which locates the Golden Age of Television as taking place between 1950 and 1960. The third is the AV Club article that we've already talked about, which suggests that House of Cards could "kill the golden age of television". The second is this article in the Atlantic heralding it as a beacon *of* the "golden age of television".

I'm not suggesting that there isn't some good TV out there, just that "golden age" is an unhelpful label.

@Melanie

...Presumably, releasing an entire show at once could also mitigate the
twin problems of shows being 1)canceled before they're actually finished
(resulting in dangling plot threads and/or unsatisfying endings) or 2)being
dragged out far past their natural ending points because people are still
watching and they can still make money off it. Artistically, it seems like a
much better idea.


In theory perhaps, although honestly I doubt it. More of the same is always going to be a safer bet than something fresh and unusual, whether it's released week-by-week or on-demand. The current House of Cards doesn't actually finish its story arc (and apparently wasn't intended to) and I strongly doubt that they'll cancel it just because Underwood makes it to President.

@Craverguy

Being Vice President is therefore not his end goal, but another step in the
overall plan (which is, presumably, to become President himself).


Firstly, as you point out yourself, this just makes the whole thing even *more* padded out. Secondly, this comes back to my original point about the show failing to distinguish between "power" and "prestige". Underwood is *already* in the position where he can achieve more or less anything he wants to - he has the President wrapped around his little finger, can effortlessly manipulate the Senate, makes powerful lobbyists and trade unions dance to his tune. What on *Earth* will the Presidency get him apart from a nicer chair? Does he want to nuke somebody? It feels particularly odd because the show goes to great lengths to show the President as being *utterly powerless*. The real power in the country seems to be Underwood and that bald guy with the nuclear power plants he goes to see two episodes from the end.

It also just feels (to me, as somebody who doesn't know that much about the US political system) that overthrowing the President is a much bigger deal than overthrowing the Prime Minister. Party Leadership changes hands between elections all the time in the UK and it's fine because you vote for the party, not the PM. Overthrowing a sitting president seems, long term, like political suicide. Why not just wait and secure the nomination himself at the next election?(Hell for that matter why didn't he just do that *this* time around - he clearly has the support and clearly *wants it*).
Arthur B at 10:55 on 2013-03-04
@wrongquestions:
But that wasn't my only criteria for a golden age: I also listed the influx of interesting artists into the medium, the proliferation of venues for it, and an increase in styles and approaches taken to it. All of which is also happening (aside from the fact that the critical conversation I mentioned is far from negative).

But what if you have that influx of interesting artists and a proliferation of venues and an increase in styles and approaches and absolutely zip in terms of critical response?

For example, if you're inclined to believe that fantasy fiction (for example) has been ruined since the late 1970s/early 1980s by the influx of Tolkien imitators, people who take Dungeons & Dragons as the baseline assumption of the fantasy genre, and (eventually) the rise of shallow grimdarkery as the dominant mode, then you're likely to see the golden age of fantasy as being at some point between the 1930s and 1960s, despite the fact that genre fiction didn't get much critical cred at the time.

As said in my first comment, there's nothing which ties the golden age of criticism to the golden age of the subject of that criticism (assuming the term "golden age" is even remotely useful, which this conversation makes me doubt).

@Dan:
So I don't think it's true that "what the culture is interested in ... is TV" - at least not more so than thirty years ago. The power of television as a medium has been understood since the 1960s at least.

And arguably the culture has in fact moved on. Television was undeniably a major, major force in both the reaction to and the development of the Vietnam War. Conversely, the Arab Spring seems to have fed primarily off social media, with television documenting the results but clearly being less central to what was going on than it was a few decades ago.

The real power in the country seems to be Underwood and that bald guy with the nuclear power plants he goes to see two episodes from the end.

Wait, what? This is starting to make me think the series would be improved if instead of playing Underheart Spacey were reprising a certain other role of his.
http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 12:26 on 2013-03-04
But what if you have that influx of interesting artists and a proliferation of venues and an increase in styles and approaches and absolutely zip in terms of critical response?

I don't know? It feels kind of weird to take my definition, which consists of several criteria, and complain that if you drop one of them the definition no longer works. That's way I had more than one criteria in the first place.
Arthur B at 12:30 on 2013-03-04
It feels kind of weird to take my definition, which consists of several criteria, and complain that if you drop one of them the definition no longer works.

OK, your original comment read to me as though a golden age required all of those criteria to be present. Rereading, I see that that isn't necessarily the case, though I don't think my misreading was outrageously unsupported.
http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 16:02 on 2013-03-04
No, that's what I meant. I suggested several criteria that, taken together, might describe a golden age. You countered with a situation in which some of those criteria existed but not others, which didn't seem related to my argument.

That said, it's not as if that list comes from anywhere but the top of my head (well, that and twenty years of being an avid TV watcher, and a little bit less of being involved in the fandom and commentary surrounding TV, which do convince me that there's been a step up in the complexity and breadth of what's being made in the medium), and I wouldn't go to war for it or anything. Plus, at this point, I've used the phrase "golden age" so many times that it's lost all meaning. My original point was that when people talk about a flowering of the medium, that observation isn't rooted exclusively in a particular definition of "good" TV.
Arthur B at 16:39 on 2013-03-04
I seem to have slipped from the cusp of understanding your point back into utter confusion once again.

Would you say that a situation where a clear majority of those criteria were in place but one (or at a stretch two) were absent would still constitute a flowering of the medium or a golden age or whatever term we wish to use? If "Yes", then I think we've fumbled our way onto the same page. If "No", then I am completely lost.
Dan H at 17:16 on 2013-03-04
@Arthur

I think you might be being a bit unfair here, I don't think anybody was trying to provide a specific concrete definition of what a "golden age" was - just a general description of what people mean when they talk about the golden age of television (or at least, the golden age of television in the 2000s, rather than the golden age of television that ran from 1950 to 1960).
Arthur B at 17:30 on 2013-03-04
Oh, this isn't about me having any disagreement on that score, this is 100% about me trying my damnedest to understand what wrongquestions is saying and failing over and over and over again.

And yet, with my boundless faith in the ability of two human beings to eventually work out what the hell each other is talking about, I keep trying.
http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 18:19 on 2013-03-04
Would you say that a situation where a clear majority of those criteria were in place but one (or at a stretch two) were absent would still constitute a flowering of the medium or a golden age or whatever term we wish to use?

Uh, I have no idea?

I gave what I felt was a definition of a golden age using a list of criteria. I made no claims to that list's comprehensiveness - it's entirely possible that it is insufficient, or that one or more of the conditions I noted are redundant (again, I wasn't being terribly scientific when I made that list). But it feels implicit to me that if you give a list of conditions 1..N that describe a particular situation, you're not saying that that situation applies if only conditions 1..N-1 are true.

(By the way, in case this wasn't clear, I'm Abigail. It seems strange to call me wrongquestions since I'm named above in the review.)
Axiomatic at 18:55 on 2013-03-04
I'm inherently more inclined to trust people who claim that the golden age of a certain medium is NOW, over people who claim it took place in the past and NOTHING MADE NOW CAN EVER BE ANYTHING MORE THAN A PALE REFLECTION OF THOSE CLASSICS.
Wardog at 19:08 on 2013-03-04
The producers never intended for the current season to be the whole show (and, in fact, it was renewed for a second season before the first had even been released). Being Vice President is therefore not his end goal, but another step in the overall plan (which is, presumably, to become President himself).


I know you weren't using this to defend the show, so much as explain it but I really hate this sort of justification in general for something not being particularly engaging or satisfying. "Oh, oh, it's all part of a wider arc." I just kind of feel that maybe THIS arc has to mean something to make it worth your while to invest in the possibility of another one.

Possibly I'm just getting old and cynical but I'm increasingly hostile to "it gets better" arguments - err, I mean as applied to culture, not as applied to being gay.

Also, as Dan says, Underwood never really explains what the fuck he's doing, nor does his "plan" have enough internal consistency that you can reasonably see the route he intends to take (even though you can work out, by extra-narrative deduction, he probably wants to be President - so most of the time it's like he's just doing arbitrary shit. Boringly.
http://arilou-skiff.livejournal.com/ at 21:53 on 2013-03-04
I know you weren't using this to defend the show, so much as explain it but I really hate this sort of justification in general for something not being particularly engaging or satisfying. "Oh, oh, it's all part of a wider arc." I just kind of feel that maybe THIS arc has to mean something to make it worth your while to invest in the possibility of another one.

Possibly I'm just getting old and cynical but I'm increasingly hostile to "it gets better" arguments - err, I mean as applied to culture, not as applied to being gay.


I find reading something that I think is pretty bad tht suddenly in retrospect turns out to be brilliant to be immensely satisfying (moreso than stuff that's just generally good in fact) although the flipside is of course that you end up reading a ton of stuff that's horrible all the way through...
Axiomatic at 07:30 on 2013-03-05
Also, the least trustworthy people are the ones who say that the Golden Age of X was when they just so happened to be 14.

This is a slight bit of hypocrisy on my part because the golden age of videogames was clearly when I was 14.
Wardog at 11:31 on 2013-03-05
I find reading something that I think is pretty bad tht suddenly in retrospect turns out to be brilliant to be immensely satisfying (moreso than stuff that's just generally good in fact) although the flipside is of course that you end up reading a ton of stuff that's horrible all the way through...

I don't know, I came late to the sweet liberation of just stopping reading when something was bad so I'm probably missing out on a lot of things that turn awesome in their final third. I can certainly see this - and it's definitely down to personal preference - but equally I think if something is good ... it should, err, make a decent attempt to be good all the way through ;)

It's a reverse Winnie-the-Pooh (mainly cheese, with honey right at the bottom).

This is a slight bit of hypocrisy on my part because the golden age of videogames was clearly when I was 14.

Oh Gawd, me too. I mean, I wouldn't seriously argue it but I *feel* it in my heart :) I recently picked up the enhanced edition of BG and I'm having an AMAZING time. There is part of me that genuinely believes that this is the epitome of computer gaming. I don't know, isometric viewpoint and a painted background just makes me all sticky with joy.
Arthur B at 11:44 on 2013-03-05
An executive at Freesat (the UK's free-to-watch-if-you-have-a-dish satellite TV package) gives some interesting insights. The point about how premiering shows online before taking them to broadcast TV might be a low-risk way of doing it isn't one which occurred to me because I'd forgotten that broadcast channels have to deal with two budgets when making shows, and arguably the time budget is the more delicate one, so being able to greenlight a show without committing any of your time budget to it must be quite liberating for TV execs.
Dan H at 11:58 on 2013-03-05

I'm inherently more inclined
to trust people who claim that the golden age of a certain medium is NOW, over
people who claim it took place in the past and NOTHING MADE NOW CAN EVER BE
ANYTHING MORE THAN A PALE REFLECTION OF THOSE CLASSICS.


I can see where you're coming from, but I tend to take the opposite view. The way I see it you can *only* define a golden age in hindsight. Yes, this means you're looking through nostalgia glasses, but otherwise you've got no context.

I think I also tend to use the term "golden age" differently anyway, I tend to think of it as meaning "time when something is first becoming popular or established, during which major icons tend to emerge with which other things will necessarily be compared." So when people talk about the "Golden Age of Hollywood" they aren't saying that films are worse now, or that film stars aren't as interesting. It's not that the stars of the Golden Age were better or more talented than modern actors - it's that they defined what it *meant* to be a film star (just as the Beatles did for pop music and Elvis did for rock 'n roll).

I don't think we're seeing the same things with television. TV loses relevance really quickly. Maybe I'm wrong and years from now The Sopranos will be like Casablanca - something so iconic that you can't meaningfully compare anything to it. But realistically I don't think so, because I just don't think that's how TV works as a medium.
Dan H at 12:17 on 2013-03-05
@Arthur

The thing I found most interesting about the Freesat post was the discussion of the Olympics (admittedly, I suspect that this was about UK viewing not worldwide, but I could be wrong). People like thee and me, who spend our whole lives on the interwebs and get all our TV off netflix tend to forget *quite how big* broadcast TV actually is.

I thought the talk about "socialising the content" was fascinating as well. Anecdotally, I think the reason we spend a lot more time writing about books and video games at FB than we do writing about TV and movies is that TV only really feels relevant when it's actually airing - if you don't watch broadcast TV you can miss out on the whole experience of watching a program, even if you catch it later on DVD or online.
Axiomatic at 17:11 on 2013-03-05
hink I also tend to use the term "golden age" differently anyway, I tend to think of it as meaning "time when something is first becoming popular or established, during which major icons tend to emerge with which other things will necessarily be compared." So when people talk about the "Golden Age of Hollywood" they aren't saying that films are worse now, or that film stars aren't as interesting.


Yeah, I was thinking of the term Golden Age as meaning something on the lines of the time when everything was optimal, and since then things have just gone to rot.
Sunnyskywalker at 01:27 on 2013-03-12
I think I'll have to check out the UK version now! As for the US, it sounds like the big reveal of season 2 (assuming we get one) will have to be that Underwood is a Cylon. He has a plan... a ridiculously convoluted plan which makes no sense...
Wardog at 11:31 on 2013-03-12
@Sunny

I really really liked the UK version - I mean, it's filmed with, like, one camera and looks like arse but it's gripping and delicious and I found it genuinely morally challenging (in a way that the US version ... just isn't). I mean, it's probably partially because I'm racist against American television or something but I just thought it way more interesting.

Also Underwood being a Cylon makes a lot of sense ;)
Cammalot at 02:17 on 2013-03-13
(Heh. I am feeling very proud of myself now for understanding your references, because I just mainlined Battlestar Galactica AND Caprica in one fell swoop last month, via Netflix. Er, one extended fell swoop. If one can have that sort of swoop and have it still be fell. )

I'm starting to feel like I need to watch the U.S. "House of Cards" just so I can hate it properly, but... life is short.

I've come at this backwards -- I watched "To Play the King"(UK, obvs) multiple times when it aired on U.S. television, adored it (Richardson's asides to the audience make him seem like a gloriously evil yet still avuncular C.S. Lewis), and then had to seek out "House of Cards" on DVD. So "The Final Cut" was the only one I watched in the proper order, and I wound up liking them in the order I watched them: "To Play the King" affected me most and felt like it had the highest stakes, while "The Final Cut" just felt like a relentless progresion to where one sort of knew it had to wind up, etc.

I don't know. My heart sunk when I heard mere rumors that they were remaking this; I have issues wth Kevin Spacey at the best of times (Richardson is spooky in one way, Spacey in an entirely different way, and I should probably leave it at that); and the extended episode run screams padding to me. Not to mention the differences in the political systems outlined by previous commentors.

I think it might have worked better had they narrowed the scale and had him going for governor of one of the larger states. More of a hands-on role, I think.
Sister Magpie at 02:46 on 2013-03-13
<quote>I can see where you're coming from, but I tend to take the opposite view. The way I see it you can *only* define a golden age in hindsight. Yes, this means you're looking through nostalgia glasses, but otherwise you've got no context.</quote>

I happily admit that whatever we call it, I think I'm living in an amazing time for television that's absolutely different from what came before (speaking only of US TV, really) and I don't think I need hindsight to see that. Basically for the reasons wrongquestions mentioned regarding it attracting creative people.

I also think Alan Sepinwall makes a lot of good points about exactly what the difference is, mainly a couple of networks deciding to change their model of TV shows so that instead of trying to appeal to everyone (and that leading to, among other things, characters always getting warmer and fuzzier over time to be likable) they could go with shows that appealed to a smaller audience. And then they trusted the people working on them relatively alone. Of course this doesn't always lead to genius television but it's led to far more interesting stuff, even the failures imo. I don't know which shows will hold up and how well, but I think there's already ways in which the so-called "golden" shows hold up and get watched--and are made to be watched--differently. I mean, it's true that people talk about all TV now more closely--they do recaps of Bones as well as Deadwood. But I think there's a lot more to talk about when you're recapping Deadwood than there would be an old ep of Dr. Quinn. Not everyone likes those kinds of shows, but I do think they're different.

Pretty much agree on everything re: House of Cards. Though my impression of Zoe--and maybe I was totally wrong--wasn't that she was supposed to be a Strong Female Character that people only disagreed with because they didn't get that. I thought she was supposed to represent What Was Wrong With Journalism. So the old fogeys who didn't like her were right, but impotent. Later she had a redemption (for some reason) but I didn't think she was always a hero. Of course I still flat-out can't understand why she slept with Underwood. Seemed OOC for her as presented. But you could be right about what I was intended to see because the other young people at the paper seemed to think she was awesome or be in love with her.
Dan H at 11:05 on 2013-03-13
But I think there's a lot more to talk about when you're recapping Deadwood than there would be an old ep of Dr. Quinn. Not everyone likes those kinds of shows, but I do think they're different.


I don't think you're comparing like with like here, though. There's *exactly* as much in an old episode of Dr Quinn or Murder She Wrote as there is in an episode of Bones or NCIS. There's exactly as much in an episode of Edge of Darkness or The Prisoner as there is in an episode of Deadwood or Mad Men. Original Doctor Who had as much creativity and complexity in it as new Doctor Who, arguably more.

I think it's probably true that more TV is getting made *in general* and that it is therefore easier to find stuff that suits your tastes more, and with more resources, more people are able to produce more things which might overall be more interesting, but I don't see that as a golden age, just as a by-product of economic growth.

And Re: Zoe.

But you could be right about what I was intended to see because the other young
people at the paper seemed to think she was awesome or be in love with her.


Another very slight point in my favour, I think, is that Zoe was basically representing the young, dynamic face of New Media against the old, slow, backward thinking conventional Old Media institutions. On a show that was written and produced *by Netflix* for distribution *online*. There's something almost metatextual about her arc, which is basically all about rejecting outdated distribution models in favour of new direct-to-web content.
Sister Magpie at 18:33 on 2013-03-13
There's exactly as much in an episode of Edge of Darkness or The Prisoner as there is in an episode of Deadwood or Mad Men.


Is it a coincidence that you're comparing those modern shows to two British shows? Because part of my point about what's different in these shows is in a specifically-US context. It's not that complex shows never existed but that in the US specifically there is something very different happening now that allows for things that were not allowed earlier due to the network model. It's not a global change, but from where I'm sitting--woo-hoo!
Dan H at 16:19 on 2013-03-14
Is it a coincidence that you're comparing those modern shows to two British shows?


Probably not, I think that's part of why I find the whole "golden age of TV" thing so confusing, because I'm far more familiar with British TV than US TV and there's been much less of a shift in this country. Worse, where there *has* been a shift, it seems to be towards a more US-like style, so I almost feel like the "Golden Age of TV" has had a *negative* impact in the UK.

A good case in point might be Ripper Street, which feels very much like a child of the American "golden age of TV". It's got all of the hallmarks: troubled white man struggling with the demands of masculinity as the century turns and he himself enters middle age, large cast of characters whose personal backstories are exposited in small amounts every episode, slow portentous dialogue, lavish sets and so on. But when you get right down to it, it's just ... not very good.
Sister Magpie at 20:42 on 2013-03-14
I was going to try to watch Ripper Street but didn't get the channel it was on--but I still get exactly what you're saying. There's plenty of things to copy about many good shows, and a lot of people copy the wrong things.

Take that new serial killer show The Following, which I had no interest in seeing because the premise looked dumb and it seemed like Poe was being used in an annoying way. I read a thing where somebody at the Fox network was bragging about how they were doing a lot of stuff like on Breaking Bad so it was going to be great. The reviewer said that the guy didn't seem to get that people didn't like Breaking Bad because it was often violent, they were caught up in the story that happened to sometimes be violent.

I do think that some of what's different about the US shows is they're doing some things more like the way British shows have been all along, so there's no reason to talk about it as anything but that. From my pov it's basically just that US TV production is huge and has a lot of resources, and they've recently gotten some new ideas about what's possible. They opened the door a crack and a lot of creative people have run to get through that opening, producing stuff I enjoy. So it's a thing that's happening, but it hasn't changed all TV for the better by any means.
Arthur B at 11:08 on 2013-03-20
So, is the product placement in House of Netflix usually incredibly clumsy and obvious or is this clip an anomaly?
http://magpiewhotypes.wordpress.com/ at 22:01 on 2013-03-23
I don't remember it being that bad, but maybe that's because I'm not the audience--or the advertising was just THAT TRICKY, MAN!

Anyway, I wrote something in response to this post on my blog (would have commented here too, except I didn't realize that OpenID took Wordpress logins until now. Oh well.)
Dan H at 12:42 on 2013-03-24
It's a *little* bit better contextualised than that in the actual series (Underwood plays a lot of violent video games because he is SUPER MANLY and AGGRESSIVE and has a HUGE PENIS and is EVIL) so it sort of makes sense that he'd notice the kids' handhelds. But yeah the "hey, is that the new PRODUCT X, I've heard that's REALLY GOOD" did stand out a bit. It's not normally quite that bad.
Craverguy at 03:00 on 2016-03-29
I started watching this show last Tuesday and my binge is now complete. I've gone from never having watched a single episode to all caught up. The following is Craverguy's Capsule Review of each season. (Major unmarked spoilers ahoy!)

Season 1: I don't have much to say about this season that Dan didn't say in his review above, which I mostly agree with. There are individual episodes here that are pretty great on their own (I especially like the one where Frank gaslights the Speaker into sacking his loyal House Majority Leader and replacing him with one of Frank's minions), but the overall arc is dragged down by sloppy plotting (I remain convinced that Frank has no plan until about Episode 7), lots of padding, and the frequent deployment of the deus ex machina to move Frank's scheme forward when his actual skills aren't up to the task. If I were watching it for the first time in 2013, without the next three seasons there to keep the show in my "Continue Watching" queue in perpetuity, I might not have come back to it.

Season 2: And that would have been a shame, because this season is everything that the previous one was not: tightly plotted, with many scenes of brilliance by Frank, and a real feeling that every move he makes is in service to the larger goal and has an obvious utility for him. First he drives a wedge between the President and Tusk, then he wheedles his way into the President's confidence, then he takes him down. All very neat. I really liked his rivalry with Raymond Tusk; it recalled an extended version of Urquhart's take-down of Lord Billsborough in the British original. And I especially liked the bits where he manages to co-opt Durant and Kern into working for him without exposing himself too much at all. If the season has one weakness, it's the Stamper/Rachel subplot. I didn't care and I could see where it was heading from the start. By the final episode, I couldn't wait for one of them to kill the other and get it over with. This is the season that most reminds me of the original series, and therefore the one I like the best overall.

Season 3: Meh. Just...meh. With no overriding scheme to consume his every waking moment, Frank is unfocused this season and, as a result, so is the show. He ping pongs back and forth between pushing his jobs bill, trying to force Russia to help bring peace to the Middle East, and running for President, and manages to do terribly at all of them. Where is the mastermind of yesteryear? Because there is no one great nemesis for the Underwoods to concentrate their fire against, and so all the drama comes from them constantly making unforced errors. First Claire tanks her ambassadorial appointment, then Frank mishandles Heather Dunbar, now Claire torpedoes the deal with Russia, then back to Frank alienating Jackie Sharp. And remember above, when I said I didn't care for the Stamper/Rachel subplot? Well, I still don't care, only now it's grown in prominence. You'll notice that in every other season, I single out one particular episode or scene that was brilliant, even if I didn't care for much of the rest. This time, I got nothing. Just not a good season all around.

Season 4: Wow. This one is so incredibly uneven in quality. But luckily, the writers did me the favor of putting all the terrible episodes in the first half and all the great ones in the second. So, I can do two reviews for the price of one!

Season 4a: The first six episodes...well, they kind of stink, don't they? There are flashes of the old brilliance (the scene where Frank uses his State of the Union to publicly torpedo Claire's planned congressional campaign and force her to smile and applaud while he does it is classic), but overall they managed to indulge all of the show's worst qualities over the course of these episodes. First they give us more sloppy, seat-of-the-pants plotting in Claire's escalating, pointless feud with Frank. (How does sabotaging his campaign make her VP? Who fucking knows?) Then they dispose of Heather Dunbar, who they spent a season and a half building up as Frank's biggest threat yet, with yet another deus ex machina. Really: she's beating Frank like a rented mule in the primaries, he gets shot, and by the time he wakes up, her campaign has completely imploded because of her own missteps. If he had somehow arranged the failed assassination, I would probably think it was a brilliant twist. But as it is, I can't stand it.

Season 4b: And like someone in the writers' room flipped a switch, suddenly the quality is back. These seven episodes are genius, probably the best in the show's run. Frank gets a perfect foil in the form of his Republican opponent, who is his polar opposite in everything except personality. Frank and Claire are back in top form, particularly in the bit where they manipulate the NRA into doing away with a pro-gun VP nominee that's being forced on them. The "revelation" that the NSA's dragnet surveillance of phone usage is actually a plot to gather data for microtargeting to voters? Brilliant! The stage managing of the "open" national convention? Better than The West Wing's handling of similar subject matter. And the scene in the Oval Office between Frank and Cathy Durant...well, you'll know the one I mean when you see it. The best damn scene of the show yet. It even has a better ending than Season 2: a real cliffhanger, with fate dealing the Underwoods a body-blow again and a real question of whether their maneuvering will be enough to overcome it this time. Give me more like this next year, please.
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