It's possible that the majority of early interest surrounding Netflix's original series, 'House of Cards,' had as much if not more to do with the rental-house-cum-streaming-giant's decision to drop the entire 13-episode season at once, and seemingly obliterate the weekly, episodic format television viewers have come to know since the medium's inception, than the Hollywood names who were attached to direct and star. And in changing the question from "Is this series any good?" to "How will this series alter the way I consume television?" Netflix effectively kept the discussion precisely where the company wanted it: on their mode of operation, and how it appeals to the consumers' desire to binge watch major chunks of or the entirety of a television season in one sitting.
The Netflix model of distribution isn't just notable because of how it alters the manner in which a television series is watched, but the model also played an enormous role in how the narrative of 'House of Cards' was presented. In a way, and for the specific purposes of their prestige drama – which is based on the 1990 BBC mini-series of the same name (itself an adaptation of the 1989 novel by Michael Dobbs) – knowing that the entire first season would be available all at once, Netflix has further spurned the idea of television dramas as a collection of contained hour-long arcs contributing to a larger storyline.
For starters, those who have a Netflix subscription and have watched television series via the streaming application know that as soon as an episode ends the next one is loaded for your enjoyment. The trick is, however, you have to tell it to stop, or the service will keep right on feeding your brain with the program of your choice until your head explodes, or your electricity is shut off from all the work you've been missing – whatever happens first. This may seem like an innocuous aspect to notice when you're mainlining all five seasons of 'Friday Night Lights' (telling yourself you don’t have a problem and you can stop when you want), but when it comes to programs created specifically for this distribution model, the goal is for each episode to branch into the next as seamlessly as possible.
This is a big part of how 'House of Cards' is laid out: episodes don't necessarily feel episodic; they bleed into one another rather than aiming to have a distinct beginning, middle and end. The arc is the season – and possibly the entire series when all is said and done – so the goal becomes to watch as many episodes as you can in order to get more of a sense of story. This isn't a drastic change in storytelling; HBO has been doing this for years, mainly with 'The Wire,' 'Boardwalk Empire' and especially 'Game of Thrones' (which seems to aggressively reject the concept of an episode). These shows were practically built to be binge-watched; the difference here is Netflix is providing the viewer with that model of consumption from the get-go.
And depending on your impressions of the series, writer and executive producer Beau Willimon and his staff either did a fantastic job of spreading the story of Majority Whip Frank Underwood's (Kevin Spacey) quest for power over a 13-hour span, or they crafted a story that managed to shine only in parts, while some sections felt more like information drops, or throat-clearing than elements of a larger story. When it comes to this series, I am more in the latter camp.
All discussion of distribution models and binge watching vs. classic methods of entertainment consumption aside, 'House of Cards' is for the most part a compelling, clinical and precise political drama that is filled with some fine performances and filmed in the ultra-slick, gorgeous style of its executive producer, David Fincher (who also directed the first two episodes). But despite the aforementioned precision, the series is not a flawless machine. For starters, there are moments early on where the dialogue plainly goes for colorful, but comes up with a stinker like when Frank introduces the audience to his wife Claire (Robin Wright) by saying: "I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood." This is one of the first indications this may not be as wonderfully scripted as the series' intended pedigree had initially suggested.
Secondly, that line is one of many to be delivered straight from Kevin Spacey's mouth directly to the audience, via a device that's lifted from the BBC series (in which the character would break the fourth wall). This is a stylistic choice that sometimes works for the narrative, but occasionally bogs the proceedings down in too much of Frank Underwood's South Carolina-accented thoughts, or spiteful jabs and quips (it's worth noting, however, the use of the convention seems to shift as directors like James Foley, Allen Coulter, Carl Franklin, Charles McDougal and Joel Schumacher step in to take a swing at the show). Basically, Frank's breaking of the fourth wall is a lot like the series as a whole: unique on the surface, but it's not really saying anything that ultimately matters.
That's not to say 'House of Cards' isn't well made, or even entertaining, because it most certainly is; the show is a pleasure to watch. But as far as prestige dramas go, the story of Frank Underwood's sordid dealings in Washington, D.C. – after being snubbed by the president for the position of Secretary of State – never quite achieves the greatness its DNA suggests it so readily should. For one thing, the narrative seems unclear precisely what its objective is. Frank is certainly hungry for power, and that's a motivation we can all appreciate, but power is an abstraction and the series never clearly defines what it means to him specifically. So, rather than showing the audience where it is that Frank is coming from, the character, and most of the story, is propelled by his unrelenting sense of want – which makes Frank feel he's there solely to serve the plot, not necessarily be a part of it in a truly deep, meaningful way.
Spacey certainly headlines the series, and his chatting with the audience would suggest him to be the main character, but 'House of Cards' feels more like it should be an ensemble, something without a central figure that is told from many viewpoints, rather than continually coming back to just one. There are subplots and supporting characters like Frank's Lady Macbeth-esque wife Claire, who is played wonderfully by Robin Wright, and whose storyline is interesting when it's examining her business-like (yet totally subservient) marriage to Frank, but comes up short when it delves into the ultra-dry territory of the non-profit she runs and the on-again, off-again affair she's been having with cheesy photographer/middle-aged-orgy-planner Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels).
And the same goes for most of the other supporting characters. Kate Mara delivers a strong, low-key performance as a young, motivated journalist whose career-first unscrupulous behavior slowly shifts (thanks to Frank's miserable treatment of her) into a solid depiction of a journo realizing the importance is the story, not what the story can do to advance her professionally – even if it requires she work at Slugline.com, the ridiculous fictional political blog of the series. But the heart of 'House of Cards' is also its most tragic figure. Peter Russo (Corey Stoll, 'Midnight In Paris') manages to take what would be an otherwise standard drug-addled politician and avoid cliché while making his character's struggle for sobriety, respect, and legitimacy feel emotionally well earned. Russo is the only character that doesn't seem to thrive on the series' rather forced sense of cynicism, and he winds up having a stronger emotional resonance with the audience as a result.
There is the sense that, like the individual episodes, which sometimes aren't worth much on their own, but manage to become something more when viewed as a whole, season 1 may be more impactful when seen in conjunction with whatever season 2 has to offer. As it stands, 'House of Cards' delivers a solid package overall. Its drama struggles to achieve something greater than surface-level depth, but the appeal of its stars and the quality of its production help to balance out such shortcomings and allow the series to proudly stand next to (though not above) the other prestige dramas it is so reminiscent of.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'House of Cards' is a nicely packaged set comprised of four 50GB discs in a fold-out cardboard case. While the design is slick (like the series) the discs are difficult to retrieve from their sleeves, and seeing as how the whole thing is cardboard, I can see some rips and tears coming when trying to retrieve one of the discs. Furthermore, like 'The Social Network' and 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,' the case comes with a detached sheet offering details (in this case: chapters and descriptions) but it's just as easy to see this being lost or damaged sometime down the road.Overall, it's a nice looking package that just isn't as functional as it should be. It's as if Netflix intentionally asked Sony to make the discs as difficult to retrieve as possible, so viewers will just head online to watch it, rather than fumble with this awkward packaging. Also, good luck getting to these discs without covering them in fingerprints.
As expected, the 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer on this Blu-ray set is positively gorgeous. David Fincher set the bar high when he directed the first two episodes, and the subsequent directors did a fantastic job in maintaining that style and level of visual clarity. The series looks very much like a Fincher film – which you may or may not find appealing – and, visually speaking at least, 'House of Cards' justifies its reported $100 million dollar budget.
Naturally, one will want to compare the physical disc to the quality of the image that's available for anyone with a Netflix subscription. Netflix has invested a ton of money and effort to ensure its streaming picture is the best it can possibly be, and while viewing 'House of Cards' during its initial release, I was impressed with how sharp the image was. There was some slight pixelization and the image would look a little dark or out of focus at times, but all in all, it delivered.
To its credit, the Blu-ray transfer manages to completely do away with all of those issues, delivering a crystal clear product across all four discs and all 13 hours of the series. There is absolutely no evidence of noise or distortion anywhere on the disc and in addition to a higher level of contrast and lack of banding, the image is noticeably brighter than it is on the streaming service. Additionally, there is some improvement in terms of fine detail and texture, which goes hand in hand with the increased brightness. Colors are still displayed in that slightly dark, Fincher style, but still manage to look bright and vibrant – even though the palate of the series is mostly blacks and whites with a few colorful flourishes here and there.
Overall, for those who hold picture quality above all else, this is the biggest (and possibly only) justification for grabbing this set.
While Netflix generally sounds good, it doesn't necessarily sound great. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track on 'House of Cards' does, however. Everything here is as clear and precise on the auditory level as it was in regard to the visual aspect.
Dialogue serves as the cornerstone for this series, and while some of it can be a little ham-fisted, it all sounds superb. Additionally, the music by Jeff Beal manages to sneak up on you while you're watching the series, rather than hit you over the head with some sort of bombastic, overwrought score. That subtlety plays nicely into the themes of the show and comes across elegantly on the Blu-ray. The balance between dialogue and score certainly seems to favor the dialogue, but that is clearly intentional and makes those moments when the score takes over all the more powerful. This is particularly true during the opening credit sequence of (nearly) every episode.
This is talky drama set in the echoing corridors of politics and the homes of the Washington's elite, so there is little in the way of big sound effects, but the mix does a very nice job of creating a believable and immersive atmosphere no matter the location. Offices are filled with the din of ringing phones and papers being shuffled, doors being opened and closed and the general commotion of political movers and shakers. The rear channels do a great job of making this part of the ambiance without it overwhelming any particular scene.
On the whole, the sound compliments every aspect of the series quite well and is a strong reason to validate owning this series on a physical format.
Here is where the Netflix business model really comes into play, and why I'm surprised 'House of Cards' was released in a physical format at all. Netflix has absolutely no incentive to provide viewers with a product that could in any way be viewed as superior to the one available at their command online. The image and sound quality are already better, and there's the reliability of physical format vs. the Internet to consider, but that's secondary to content. As such, this four disc, 13-hour set is completely devoid of special features. Not a single commentary, making of featurette or obligatory cast interview is to be found here. And considering the level of talent involved it feels like a disservice to their efforts in order to ensure audiences have no real motivation to deviate from viewing the series on Netflix.
What's strange is that while the series is funded by Netflix, the rights to sell it actually belong to its producer, Media Rights Capital, with Sony acting as distributor in the U.S. and abroad – hence this Blu-ray set. One can only conclude, then, that some agreement had been reached between all parties to preclude the addition of bonus content when the product moved away from Netflix exclusively. Whatever the cause, perhaps there will be an edition with special features eventually or perhaps non-U.S. editions will contain some supplemental features.
Netflix's goal with 'House of Cards' may have been to alter the way we consume our television, but it will certainly have an effect on things like Blu-ray and DVD as well. One of the primary reasons for owning a television series on disc is the ability to watch any episode you choose at any time. Netflix has already taken care of that urge by releasing and maintaining the entire series for subscribers to view at their leisure. Therefore, the only people interested in obtaining the disc set will likely be those who don't have the service, or are currently unable to get it. This is a well-made series filled with good performances and a compelling storyline that just doesn't quite achieve the greatness it was hoping for. In addition, without any supplements, this physical release is only worth it for the picture and sound – which may not be enough for anyone to plunk down their hard-earned cash. Either way, the series is recommended.