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Published: Wednesday, January 30, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Netflix's 'House of Cards' could be watershed event

  • Kevin Spacey plays politician Francis Underwood in the Netflix original series, "House of Cards," an adaptation of a British classic.

    Melinda Sue Gordon / Netflix

    Kevin Spacey plays politician Francis Underwood in the Netflix original series, "House of Cards," an adaptation of a British classic.

In Netflix's bid for a flagship original drama of its own -- a "Sopranos" to its HBO -- the subscription streaming service is presenting a high-class adaptation of a British political thriller offered up all at once, with its first season immediately ready for TV-viewing gluttony.
The show, "House of Cards," is a bold attempt to remake the television landscape with the kind of prestige project cable channels like HBO, AMC and Showtime have used to define themselves.
But "House of Cards," produced by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey, won't be on the dial of that refuge of quality dramas -- cable television -- but streamed online to laptops and beamed directly to flat-screens through set-top boxes and Internet-enabled devices.
"It's sort of like we're the new television series that isn't on television," Spacey said.
On Feb. 1, all 13 hours of "House of Cards" will premiere on Netflix, a potentially landmark event that could herald the transition of television away from pricey cable bundles and toward the Internet, a process well under way at YouTube, Hulu, Yahoo and others, but not yet tested to the degree of "House of Cards."
The show is no low-budget Web series, but an HBO-style production for which Netflix reportedly paid in the neighborhood of $100 million for two seasons.
The revered British original aired in three seasons from 1990 to 1996 and was adapted from the books by Michael Dobbs, a notable politician and adviser to Margaret Thatcher.
It starred Ian Richardson as a scheming, manipulating politician who shared his power-hungry strategies directly into the camera.
With a darkly comic antihero as protagonist, it was a forerunner to characters like Walter White of "Breaking Bad" and Dexter Morgan of "Dexter."
Independent studio Media Rights Capital, a producer of films like "Ted" and "Babel," purchased the rights to "House of Cards" and paired Fincher with the project, along with Beau Willimon, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of another political drama, "The Ides of March."
Sarandos says their wealth of data on user viewing habits proved there's a large audience for Fincher, Spacey and political thrillers.
Obsessively bingeing on a serial, whether "The Wire" or "Battlestar Galactica," has become a modern ritual in DVR-emptying bursts, on-demand catch-ups or DVD marathons. In releasing "House of Cards" all at once, Netflix will sacrifice the attention generated by weekly episodes to cater to these habits. Sarandos notes that in the first 24 hours that Netflix had the second season to AMC's "Walking Dead," about 200,000 people watched the entire season.
The audience for "House of Cards" will be immediately global: It premieres in 50 countries and territories.
"We want to have a situation where these shows have time to find their audience," Sarandos said. "We're not under any time constraints that we have to get all of America to watch this show Monday night at 8 o'clock.
"There's no differential value in people watching it this year, let alone Monday night."
Transferring the tale from Thatcher-era London to contemporary Washington, D.C., held obvious challenges to Willimon, who sought to broaden the show's scope.
The wife to Spacey's Francis Underwood, played by Robin Wright as a kind of Lady Macbeth, has been fleshed out. The reporter whom Underwood exploits to both his and her advantage (played by Kate Mara) is now a blogger.
Underwood's great catch phrase -- "You might very well think that, but I couldn't possibly comment" -- is plainly British in manner. But Willimon had the breakthrough that if he made Francis a congressman from South Carolina -- where much of Willimon's family lives -- a Southern drawl would make the phrase more natural.
Part of the thrill of "House of Cards," the original and the adaptation, is its use of direct address. Just as Richardson did, Spacey occasionally turns devilishly to the camera to explain his Machiavellian politics.
The timing is good for "House of Cards" in that it presents a corrupt Congressman at a time when Congress is viewed by many as the antihero of American life.
A recent poll by Public Policy Polling found that Congress, in its inaction and party rancor, is currently less popular than root canals and the band Nickelback.
Story tags » Television

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