No, we aren’t going to bore you with a dissertation on the subject of writers supervising all the production elements of a television series. (Although we’re certainly glad it’s writers who usually get those gigs. Can you imagine what series run by directors would be like? Wait, you don’t have to imagine. Just look at any series produced by Steven Spielberg. Oy!)
Where were we? Oh, right. What we’re boring you with here today is how one specific showrunner works and thinks. Via an interview with Beau Willimon, Big Honcho of HOUSE OF CARDS. Brace yourselves:
Emmys: ‘House of Cards’ Boss Beau Willimon Doesn’t ‘Give a S— Whether Anyone Likes My Characters’
by Lucas Shaw
Beau Willimon has approached White House correspondents, Pulitzer Prize winners and little-known bloggers about the portrayal of journalists in his show “House of Cards,” the Netflix series about the lurid underground of our nation’s capitol starring Kevin Spacey.
The one-time press officer for a number of politicians is particularly sensitive to this subject, not least of which because one of the show’s main characters, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), is a journalist who sleeps with her primary informant.
When Willimon stopped by TheWrap, we had to ask the guy in charge of one of the year’s most buzzed-about series a few questions of our own.
One of the most controversial things about “House of Cards” in Hollywood is that Netflix won’t reveal how many people are watching. What do you make of that
When you’re not selling advertising, is the idea of a hit an antiquated notion? If you’re a company like Netflix, the goal is to provide something for everyone.
They’ll make a show knowing that it won’t cause crazy ratings but feed underserved fans and make them loyal Netflix subscribers. Instead of trying to hit as many people with one thing, you try to hit everyone with lots of little things.
Do you get the numbers?
I have a certain amount of knowledge about the numbers, but I held off as much as I could. I’d be happy with Netflix saying, “We’re happy.” I don’t really want to know much more than that.
Was there any sort of line that you couldn’t cross in terms of what you could show — language, violence?
No, I never had a documentation that said, “You can’t do these things.” If we had a guy raping a cow with a swastika tattooed on his forehead, then would someone maybe have said, “We are a little bit concerned about this?” Potentially.
Netflix’s House of Cards boasts an extensive cast, but it follows the rise and fall of two men in particular: Francis Underwood and Peter Russo. Underwood is the majority whip of the House of Representatives; Russo, a representative from Pennsylvania. Russo seems fairly satisfied with the modest power he has: an attractive aide he can sleep with, the ability to do favors for his constituency, a big office. Underwood craves power at all times.
That in itself isn’t too noteworthy. What makes it interesting is how much of the show dwells not just on power but powerlessness.
When Russo is plucked from obscurity to spearhead an environmental bill, one of the conditions Underwood imposes is that Russo get clean. No more drugs, no more drinking. To keep Russo on the right path, he sends Russo to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with his enforcer Stamper. The congressman from Pennsylvania sits in a church basement every morning, drinking stale coffee and listening to other people’s stories.
20th century pop culture has given all of us, on the wagon or off, a passing familiarity with the twelve-step program that defines Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step, as originally authored in 1935: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable. Is this something Russo does? Is this something anyone in House of Cards can do?
Consider the first episode, where Underwood learns that he’s been passed over for Secretary of State, possibly the most important office in Washington outside of the Presidency. He spends the entire day in a despondent sulk, ignoring texts from his wife. When she asks him why he trusted Chief of Staff Linda Vazquez’s promises, he pouts, “I didn’t; I don’t; I don’t trust anybody.” He throws a temper tantrum, spends the whole night brooding, then comes up with a plan – a plan that will result in the sidelining of a senior member of Congress, the ouster of the Vice President, and one man’s death.
Is this a rational response to Underwood’s setback? Disappointment at a broken promise, anger at having one’s efforts go unrewarded: these are believable. But the steps Underwood takes not only put his entire career at risk – he stakes his own reputation on the education bill that he spends several weeks sabotaging – they put the relative strength of his party at risk as well. Think how it would look if Joe Biden resigned the office of the Vice President in 2010 to go campaigning for his old seat in Delaware.
Underwood considers these stakes acceptable for the game he’s playing. This, frankly, is not a man who can admit powerlessness.
Russo has a hard time admitting powerlessness as well. This stubbornness reflects in how little he participates in the AA meetings that Stamper drags him to. “He never shares anything,” Stamper says. While there’s no requirement that you share something at an AA meeting to earn your place, openness about your inability to deal with your addiction alone is an essential step.
But Russo doesn’t clean up because he wants to repair his life. He cleans up because he wants to earn Underwood’s trust and become governor of Pennsylvania. Getting sober is a means to an end. He’s using that motivation – the chance for political glory – as a lever to help him stay on the wagon. But when that carrot is taken away, in a deliberate ploy by Stamper and Underwood, he has nothing left to stay sober for.
To live and work in Washington means to seek after power or serve those who do. It’s a city that produces no exports but law, fulfills no need but legislation. You’re there because you want to sway human affairs. The thing I found hardest to believe about House of Cards is that the Washington it depicts has any AA chapters at all. Can you imagine a sitting member of Congress running the risk of being photographed outside a church basement? Can you imagine a member of the Ways and Means committee seeking to make amends to those he had harmed?
(In real life, there are doubtless actual support groups in DC that operate with healthy discretion. But this is the DC of House of Cards, where people are more rabid and cruel than in the world we recognize)
So Russo cannot own up to his powerlessness and, as such, his powerlessness overtakes him again. Underwood can’t admit to his powerlessness either, but he appears to end S1 on an upswing. His schemes have triumphed and he’s about to be selected to replace the resigning Vice President. But is he in control, or is he just bouncing between relapses?
Russo’s addiction is alcohol (or some blend of booze and cocaine). Underwood’s addiction, on the other hand, is obedience. He gets off on having people do what he wants. Sometimes this is a subtle high, as when he arranges circumstances such that he gets control of the President’s education bill. Other times it’s an uncut dose, as when he takes Zoe roughly in her tiny apartment. Either way, Underwood can’t stand when people don’t dance to his tune.
Put that way, it sounds petulant rather than noble, just as the boasts of a three-day drunk sound. And just like a career alcoholic, Underwood is heedless of the damage his addiction does to those around him. His need to whip Claire into line costs him the environmental bill that would have put Russo on the governor’s ballot. It also drives her into the arms of her old flame, sexy Manhattan photographer Adam Galloway. When she comes back, there’s no tearful reconciliation, no promise to change his ways – just back to business as usual. We might call Claire an enabler if she weren’t co-dependent on Underwood’s style.
S1 of House of Cards is the story of two addicts on alternate trajectories. Both have coping mechanisms that they’ve built up over years of practice. Both see those coping mechanisms fail, with damaging results. But Underwood lives in a city that caters to his addiction and punishes Russo’s. He has his network – Claire, Stamper, Congress, the Oval Office – to prop him up when he falls. Russo has nothing, and the few people he has, he drives away. The result for him is tragic. Will the result for Underwood, in later seasons, be the same?
(As a postscript, it’s ironic that this is one of the first TV series released in its entirety on its debut weekend. Seth Godin called this a mistake, but Kevin Spacey, at least, seemed to understand the reasoning behind it. “When I ask my friends what they did with their weekend, they say, ‘Oh, I stayed in and watched three seasons of Breaking Bad’ or it’s two seasons of Game of Thrones. For whatever reason, people are consuming large chunks of story – they’re getting really involved in big arcs.”
So, yes, it’s a show about addiction that’s catering to TV addicts.)
HOUSE OF CARDS, is meant for the likes of me in one respect: I have recently streamed the entirety of shows like DOWNTON ABBEY, BREAKING BAD, SONS OF ANARCHY, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, BOARDWALK EMPIRE, GAME OF THRONES and the old and the new versions of UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS.
I enjoy watching serialized shows that leave me wanting more, but because I waited I don’t have to wait.
Tensions built up over previous hours are instantly gratified with another hour, and so on… until all the hours are over and there is a profound sense of satisfaction and loss that there is no more.
So I’m a big fan of Netflix and genuinely want this kind of 13 episode drop of HOUSE OF CARDS to be a success, so we’ll get more of it in the future.
The problem with HOUSE OF CARDS though, is that it there is nothing that I really needed to have gratified after the first few episodes. There were no interesting characters I cared about, there was no clever plot I needed resolved, and there were no satisfying insights of the time and place.
Just a bunch of unlikely stuff happening to a bunch of unlikely people who I didn’t give a shit about.
If you like acting and actors Kevin Spacey (Frank Underwood) and Robin Wright (Claire Underwood) are as good as anybody, but their characters are two-dimensional psycho power-crazed nut-jobs who stick together like a pair of serial killers, and manipulate anyone who gets in the way of their grand plan.
For Congressman Frank Underwood it’s revenge for being passed over for Secretary of State in a new president’s cabinet, and a reacceleration of his career trajectory to where he believe it belongs. For Claire it’s the advancement of the clean water non-profit organization she heads. The two are willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish their goals. If they can help themselves by helping each other, great, if not, screw them too.
In one scene, Claire sadistically gives her former bodyguard, in hospice for cancer, a hand job under the sheets, after he professes his unrequited love for her. Asking, “Is this what you wanted?” While explaining why she chose her husband as her life partner over the likes of the man dying in the bed in front of her.
And she didn’t even finish him off!
There’s no tragedy in Claire or Frank just self-absorbed assholery; and therefore, nothing to root for. No humanity to redeem.
Not even among the plot devices secondary characters. Everyone around Frank and Claire just lets themselves be manipulated and abused and does nothing about it. They all just lie there and get wanked around.
And that’s it. The show might be good if others fought or manipulated back. If there was true political intrigue. If HOUSE OF CARDS took a cue from GAME OF THRONES and Frank and Claire’s opposition pawns were at least somewhat formidable. But they aren’t. For the most part, they just take it.
After the first few episodes I realized that HOC lacked tension. That I really didn’t care if I found out what happened next. That the only reason I was watching the next episode was not that I had to see what happened next and I was relieved that the next one was already there waiting to be seen.
I was watching it just because it was all there and I had to finish it, like a new version of World of Warcraft.
In my quest to become a level 13 lawful evil streamer, I actually lost respect for myself. I’ll watch anything. I have no standards. Maybe I should start drinking again….
Don’t end up like me (hic!). For a truly satisfying experience, I recommend the British version. In fact, you can watch the whole thing on Netflix.
We think this is an issue worth discussing. We also think that the answer to the question will be “no,” at least in terms of the general – as in casual – audience. But true believer fans have always been marathon viewers. And now it’s become so much easier!
I used to watch new episodes of my favorite shows every week on television. Now I watch one show, episode by episode, in sequence and on a computer screen. Then the next show. According to New York Times reporter Brian Stelter, that’s become normal:
Binge-viewing, empowered by DVD box sets and Netflix subscriptions, has become such a popular way for Americans to watch TV that it is beginning to influence the ways the stories are told — particularly one-hour dramas — and how they are distributed. […]
On Friday, Netflix will release a drama expressly designed to be consumed in one sitting:“House of Cards,” a political thriller starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. Rather than introducing one episode a week, as distributors have done since the days of black-and-white TVs, all 13 episodes will be streamed at the same time. “Our goal is to shut down a portion of America for a whole day,” the producer Beau Willimon said with a laugh.
“House of Cards,” which is the first show made specifically for Netflix, dispenses with some of the traditions that are so common on network TV, like flashbacks. There is less reason to remind viewers what happened in previous episodes, the producers say, because so many viewers will have just seen it. And if they don’t remember, Google is just a click away. The show “assumes you know what’s happening all the time, whereas television has to assume that a big chunk of the audience is always just tuning in,” said Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer.
Television producers now have to grapple with customers who won’t even start watching a series until it’s over:
Some hoarders wait years: Mr. Mazzara, for instance, said he’s waiting to watch HBO’s “Girls” until the whole series is over, several years from now. This stockpiling phenomenon has become so common that some network executives worry that it is hurting new shows because they cancel the shows before would-be viewers get around to watching them.
Economist Tyler Cowen reflects on this trend and notes where immediate sequentialization does and does not work:
You can buy an entire book at once, as serialization — while not dead — has ceased to be the norm for long novels. At MOMA they do not run an art exhibit by putting up one new van Gogh painting each day. Coursera, you will note, still uses a kind of serialization model for its classes rather than putting up all the lectures at once; presumably it wishes to synchronize student participation plus it often delivers the content in real time. Sushi is served sequentially, even though several cold courses presumably could be carried over at once. Still, a plate in an omakase experience typically has more than one piece of fish.
For TV I do not think upfront bingeing can become the norm. The model of “I don’t really care about this, but I have nothing much to talk to you about, so let’s sit together and drop commentary on some semi-randomly chosen TV show” seems to work less well when the natural unit of the show is thirteen episodes and you are expected to show dedication.