Netflix is venturing deep into the scripted television game with its new political drama “House of Cards.” The series has a great pedigree: It stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, had its first two episodes directed by David Fincher, was developed by playwright Beau Willimon and is based on the 1990 British TV series of the same name (which, in turn, was based on the Michael Dobbs novel “House of Cards”). When it debuts on Feb. 1, the show will mark a new era for the quality of Netflix original programming.
It was Netflix’s dedication to quality that got Willimon on board to begin with. During a recent conference call with Willimon, Spacey and Wright, the series creator explained that it was Netflix’s “extraordinary commitment to guarantee 26 episodes up front” that convinced him to take “House of Cards” to them instead of rival networks like HBO or Showtime.
“What that allowed us to do in the storytelling is think about the narrative in terms of a massive scope and with a lot of depth,” he explained. “Since we knew we had 26 hours, we could do things in the early part of Season 1 that we knew would come back towards the end of Season 2. You can’t do that with any other network out there.”
Willimon, Wright and Spacey frequently referred to “House of Cards” as a 13-hour-long movie instead of a 13-episode TV series. It was the fact they all came from a film background coupled with Netflix’s decision to release the entirety of Season 1 at once on Feb. 1 that made thinking of “House of Cards” as a very long movie easier to deal with.
“In essence it’s a 13-hour film. If you choose to watch 13 in succession, you’re able to experience the arc as you would in a two hour-plus movie, and I think you can actually invest and delve into the characters on a deeper level,” Wright said. Willimon added, “We couldn’t really approach it like we were making TV; what do we know? We just set out to tell a great story, and a lot of us do film, so thinking about like a 13-hour movie and not trying to write to television or direct or act to television.”
Though Spacey has appeared in TV series in the past, this is his first regular role in one. His take on the fact many would watch “House of Cards” in one sitting was simple: “Anyone who is willing to watch 13 hours of me over a weekend, boy that’s awesome.”
Spacey and Wright both credited one another as the reason they were initially interested in joining “House of Cards,” as well as Fincher and Willimon’s involvement. Wright said she enjoys working in television because it’s “a medium that is willing to take more risks,” and she wanted to try her hand at some of the exciting things happening on the small screen.
For Spacey, his love of the original “House of Cards” series coupled with his love for William Shakespeare made his involvement in the new Netflix series a no-brainer. “House of Cards” is based on both “Macbeth and “Richard III,” so the fact that Spacey had just performed “Richard III” in London helped him transition easily into the character of Frank Underwood, the Majority Whip of the House of Representatives. That also helped him get used to the idea of breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience, a technique that is used frequently in “House of Cards.” For her part, Wright said she based her character largely off of Lady Macbeth.
If that’s not enough to prove the point, Willimon made it very clear that “House of Cards” is about power, not politics. He said that discerning the various characters’ moral compasses is part of the series’ fun, and something he wouldn’t want to spoil early on. The audience needs to come to its own conclusions in this case, and he teased that those perceptions of various characters will likely change.
As for the fact viewers will see all of the “House of Cards” team’s hard work in one fell swoop when it debuts, Willimon said he is looking forward to people experiencing Season 1 at once.
“I think that’s the trend that viewers are moving in,” he said. “They are experiencing television shows more and more as entire seasons. They’ve become accustomed to watching things when they want to watch them, how they want to watch them, what device they want to watch them on, and Netflix is smart enough to acknowledge that and to exploit it. We’re proud to be the first to deliver a show that way. We certainly won’t be the last.”
“House of Cards” debuts on Netflix on Feb. 1.