Or, why netflix isn’t making TV; it’s making visual serials.
Two hours in, House of Cards is well on its way to blacking out my serialized narrative drama series bingo card. The David Fincher directed, Kevin Spacey staring, political intrigue and power-grubbing show is Netflix’s unmistakable shot across the bow of the S.S. Home Box Office, and you kind of have to admire how its mercenary intentions are about as naked as the cast of Spartacus. The series’ choice of style, content, personnel, pacing, tone, format – the DNA of the show – have all consciously incorporated traits which have worked for cable dramas over the past five years. Based on my count, there are six or seven different threads of Francis Underwood-authored machinations unfolding along a serial trajectory [The Wire], a charismatic lead of magnetized hyperintelligence and dubious morality [Breaking Bad], an ambitious apprentice with pluck in a world that punishes her for success [Mad Men], a prestige setting which can be complicated or lean on generic norms as much as need [Boardwalk Empire], thematic concerns on power in a very Machiavellian sense [The Sopranos], and touches of obvert visual form designed to be pleasurable simply by being obvert [Sherlock].
As Todd VanderfWerff has brilliantly pointed out in his latest AV Club For Our Consideration column, the streaming service’s first scripted offering is the solution to an algorithm. What do the kinds of people who are willing to pay for television, the ones who buy DVD box sets and already have streamed Battlestar Galactica four times all the way through want to watch? What, in other words, is the critical taste difference between a general viewership and a subscriber-base? The answer according to netflix seems to be prestige, ambiguity, a dash of pretention, complex, interwoven narrative threads which arch out slowly the way a cat stretches its back, sex, and above all the expectation that the audience wants to see the forest and not the trees. The very word ‘episode’ doesn’t even feel appropriate to describe the base units of the creative entity that House of Cards is setting itself up to be.
It’s so basic we don’t even think about it, but the vast majority of television is episodic. We have Christmas episodes, wedding episodes, musical episodes, character-centric episodes. Television series need viewers to return to them over and over again – that’s how it works when you extend a narrative or a setting or a conceit over weeks and months and years – so repetition in overall structure (what makes the series recognizable to its fans) is important, variation from week to week is just as key. Lucy goes to Hollywood and meets a new celebrity every week. Mulder and Scully deal with a house of incest-deformed hillbillies this week. This week we get a Locke flashback. Even a procedural like NCIS usually does not spend more than one section of its season tracking down a criminal. Episodes are the building blocks of series, to be sure, but they’re all different colors, too. While they may have serialized elements within them, there is an integrity to an episode as a discrete unit, each one its on individual, unique argument for why you love watching a given show and why you should return to watch it next week. Did Lane failing to start his Jag destroy you inside? Come back next week at watch the characters of Mad Men continue to make terrible life decisions!
Notice how many times in that last paragraph I used the word “week.” Television has a very specific, very unique relationship with time, one altogether more diffuse than its older brother cinema, and yet more rigid than its cousin literature. Television takes a lot of time to unfold, and it does so in fixed intervals. Years. That time gives it space: to improvise, to shift focus or tone, to play with form, to surprise. You can set an episode in space, or to music, or in black and white because the point of each episode is to be varied just enough to keep things interesting while still being recognizable. Think about how much you change and grow in three years, the lifespan of, say, Veronica Mars. How there are special occasions, new relationships, old friendship who change, days you feel like bursting into song, sometimes just something weird going on. We carry TV around with us. Ideally, we grow together, always the same soul, but every week a little different. This is the gift episodic television can give to us as viewers, whether show continuity matures and deepens or remains comfortingly constant.
This brings me back to House of Cards, which shocked me by beginning its second episode in the exact same place, at the exact same moment that it ended the first. This is shocking because the first hour ended on so definitive a note, marking it off as its own discrete entity. It was like the muscle-memory of creating an episode clashed with the impulse to stretch the story out. The plans Kevin Spacey has put in motion bear fruit while he gorges himself on a rack of ribs with not-at-all-suggestive BBQ sauce. Kate Mara gets her big break as the leaked education plan goes to print; the White House is suitably confounded; Robin Wright continues to cultivate an icy aura of vicious, Lady Macbeth-like determination; even the coward who ran over a dog in the open gets apprehended. It’s a good closing montage, showing everything is going to plan. For the second episode to begin at the exact same moment, with direct address from Kevin Spacey, no less, is an acknowledgement of your ability, through online streaming, to continue the story without so much as a 30 second pause. It is the first show to acknowledge the marathon-viewer, and by so doing, to structure itself not in individuated episodes, but in arbitrary installments.
This is where netflix hopes to corner HBO and its kin, offering customers the choice to take ownership not just of the show itself, but of its rate of distribution. It’s been long remarked on how cable shows in particular during our current Golden Age have gotten ‘novelistic.’ But it is really the technological advances – the proliferation of streaming services, multiple viewing platforms, DVRs and DVD box sets – that now allow us to put a bookmark in any series, at any moment. The narrative design of such a program, then, has to be a little bit more continuous, a little bit more unified as a whole, in order to support a self-directed viewing strategy. Both excessive repetition and variation are liabilities to a subscriber who wants to see a single story unfold. This is what I mean by a visual serial. Signing up for netflix to watch House of Cards is very much like picking up a copy of Great Expectations. Even though it might be broken up into chapters, you pay upfront for a whole narrative and then experience it at your own pace.
In a way, this makes sense. The creative imperative of television is always about choice. As a viewer you have the power to watch a show or not, or to stop watching it, or to start watching it again, or wait for the DVDs and marathon the entire series as one delirious, glorious unified experience. Where you invest your enjoyment – in the momentary gags, in the takedown of the seasonal Big Bad, in the answer to a series mystery, or in the happy resolution of an episode every week – is a taste choice as well. But cable dramas, in particular, structure themselves to focus their energies on long running, densely interwoven and complex narrative threads which come together over a season and over a series as a whole. David Simon is really as much to blame as David Chase. The Wire seek nothing less than to create a multifaceted exploration of the city of Baltimore, and through it to plumb the soul of the American urban experience. It’s concerns are societal, biblical, and meant to be viewed as a unified whole. Many ardent fans of The Wire would argue such an ambition demands nothing less than the fierce focus on each seasonal setting – Police and Gangs, The Ports, Politics, Education, Media – and how it is brutally brought low by the Drug Trade.
Can you remember individual episodes of The Wire and everything that happened inside one? More likely you remember the moments that somehow crescendo, resolve, or complicate the narrative for the world’s characters: Omar in court, Dee talking about The Great Gatsby (if Jay-Z is scoring the movie, maybe we can get Lawrence Gillard Jr. to narrate?), Prez organizing things set to Johnny Cash, “How’s my hair, Mikey?” You remember the finales, of course, because each season gets resolved. It’s not a wrong, or better, way to do TV. It works for that series, and for the network that it aired on, and holds up to marathon viewing or a slower burn. But because The Wire is designed to run straight, like a series of criss-crossing train-tracks, to the heart of Baltimore, it lends itself better to a more continuous experience than starting and stopping every week.
What you lose out on is that ability to change and evolve over the course of a season, to boldly go somewhere completely unexpected for a week, to play. If you list the work of no less an auteur (and no less a cult darling) Joss Whedon, what the episodes of Buffy that stand out? “Once More With Feeling,” “The Body,” “Restless,” “Hush,” “Conversations with Dead People.” Not a one of these does not have elements or threads of continuity furthered or complicated or developed within them. BUt they are also all digressions of a sort: they don’t exist to further a whole story; they exist on their own terms. Part of the pleasure of watching a Whedon show is the smart experimentation with form, the variety, the play. If the focus was so intense and serious on Buffy fighting The Master, it would a different, and likely far lesser, series.
Netflix has decided on the kind of pleasures it wants to guarantee its subscribers, the kind of storytelling they can expect. And you know what? That’s fine, too. Since the site’s metadata can predict the sort of things its subscribers like, it’s understandable to build a production slate around those sure bets. Studios have done this since there were studios. I only hope that once it settles down, Netflix starts taking chances on individual artistic visions. It’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad that have defined AMC (although The Walking Dead expanded its ratings horizons), and those couldn’t have come from anywhere but the minds of Matthew Weiner and Vince Gilligan. FX frickin’ loves auteurs if they’re badasses: from Louis C.K. to Shawn Ryan to Dennis Leary. Even HBO takes chances, bankrolled by its flagship shows, on weirder, but no less artistic, voices. Flight of the Conchords, Eastbound and Down, and not least Treme and The Wire TV is still a writer’s medium. The content has to sing out. Starz has faltered when it’s tried to ape the taste culture of other networks (anybody remember Crash: The Series?), but when the network’s embraced what it truly is with the full-throated assurance of “I AM SPARTACUS!” it’s done interesting, compelling, and impressively visual work.
TV is all about choice: creating the artistic choices which in turn form the relationship between the art and the viewer. The good news is that new Arrested Development may better define the unique possibilities of completely digital distribution, and the marathon-viewing experience, in a more sophisticated and interesting way than how House of Cards merely acknowledges you have pressed ‘Next Episode.’ The joy of TV is in a lasting relationship. If it does not offer that, then Netflix needs to find its authorial voice to capture the true pleasures of a novel: getting lost in the world of the story, relishing the beauty of the form, and being able to return to it over and over again.