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House of Cards

…because it transformed Netflix from a DVD mailer into the brand that revolutionized streaming content. With its innovative distribution model, “House of Cards” officially made binge watching that thing we all do now. The show also set the production record in new media with a budget of over $100 million – even with award-winning actors like Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, it’s still classified as a web series. The show’s signature look of cold, gray realism is a product of both David Fincher’s dark style and the relatively tight production schedule that allows less time for lighting and set design.



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In ten years, the debate over whether ”House of Cards” is a web series or television show will probably be academic (literally the only people who care will be media historians). Still, despite the cinematic production values, the show is technically a streaming web series. And this definition makes sense, as you can’t watch new episodes without an internet linkup and a Netflix streaming device. Yet “House of Cards” easily could have been an HBO or Showtimes series – in fact, Netflix outbid them for the project. It really differs from traditional television series in another key area: distribution. While the high quality storytelling may have won over viewers and established Netflix as a force in the original content game, the show’s all-at-once release of each season upended more than a half century of TV watching habits. It’s definitely arguable whether “House of Cards” created the binge watching phenomenon. The data compilers at Netflix probably saw how people were consuming seasons of existing TV shows and figured it would work for new material; even before then, fans who watched shows on DVD would find themselves watching multiple episodes in one sitting. “House of Cards” can take credit for making binge watching into a mass phenomenon that coincided with the release of new seasons. And of course, the original content had to be pretty damn interesting for people to spend an entire weekend burning through a season. There’s a reason we associate binge watching with “House of Cards” and not Netflix’s first original series “Lilyhammer.”

Auteur fans were likely drawn to “House of Cards” for one simple reason: David Fincher. The acclaimed feature director may have started out making music videos, but “House of Cards” marked his first time at the helm of a show’s pilot episode. And while he has only directed a few episodes of the series, the show’s dark realism is a mark of his signature style. To help determine the look of the series, Fincher also rejected the use of shaky handheld shots – a trend in contemporary cinematic realism – in favor of a static camera that reinforced Frank Underwood’s calculating approach to power politics. While Underwood’s maneuvering may be down and dirty, the show’s visual mood is cold and clean, not gritty. The dark lighting in “House of Cards” also represents a departure from most other series; again, this is in line with Fincher’s visual look as a director, but it also arose from the need to shoot the series quickly. Fewer lights on set will create a darker image, but it will also mean less work in the way of setting up each shot. It’s a great example of how a creative decision and a pragmatic approach to filming don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

The Platinum Age of Television has more or less reversed the trend of actors trying to launch a movie career from a hit series. Even considering this, to have a two-time Academy Award winner like Kevin Spacey as the headline star of a show is pretty impressive. Rather than phoning it in, Spacey has turned Frank Underwood into his definitive character – yeah, we know, Verbal Kint is great, but he seems like kind of a one “greatest trick the devil ever pulled” pony compared to Underwood. How many other actors could repeatedly break the fourth wall as a way to add depth to a performance? In addition to Spacey redefining his highly acclaimed career, “House of Cards” also provided a showcase for Robin Wright to demonstrate how underutilized she’s been since "The Princess Bride" and "Forrest Gump." Her icy and enigmatic portrayal of Claire Underwood remains one of the most intriguing depictions of a female character in any medium, the type of mysterious blonde Alfred Hitchcock could only dream of casting. Her work also provides a powerful contrast to Hollywood’s refusal to provide roles for women over the age of 40. The high caliber of acting that separates the series from almost every other show on TV (or the web) does not end there. The turns from supporting cast members like Corey Stoll, Neve Campbell and Reg E. Cathey have reinforced the truism that there are no small roles. In fact, this notion is probably best represented on “House of Cards” by Michael Kelly, whose quietly ruthless portrayal of right-hand man Doug Stamper has shown what a talented character actor can do with a real character.

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