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2015/02/08

House of Cards

by Dave Gourdoux


I'm afraid that I'm turning into one of those old, out of touch curmudgeons. You know the type--the aging grouch who doesn't get the current mass culture, who insists that everything was better back in the day. Next thing you know I'll be yelling at kids to get off of my lawn and to "turn that crap down." It bothers me, because for years I told myself I'd never be that guy.

But now I often find myself without a clue, mystified by so much of our culture. For example, I just don't get "hip-hop," or whatever term it's going by nowadays. I have friends who are big fans, who speak about the artistry that goes into the music, and I try; I really want to get it, but after a few minutes of pulsating bass lines and the rhythmic but flat monotone delivery of the words, my head stats to hurt, and I find myself struggling to suppress the urge to yell out, "That's not music, it's just some guy talking!" When they tell me it's the honest voice of today's inner-city culture, I want to tell them about Wilson Pickett and Howling Wolf and Smokey Robinson, but I know that more often than not I'll get a "Who?" in response.

The same thing is true with movies.  I became a serious movie buff in the 1970s, when some of the greatest American films ever made came out.  There was Chinatown, The Godfather, and Annie Hall to name just a few. There were major directors coming of age and making films of genuine depth, breaking old rules and establishing new ground.

Now, while I recognize that there are still a lot of great filmmakers making great movies, more and more I feel out of touch with the major releases.  With the amazing advances in technology, movies can go where it was only dreamed of a short while ago.  This has put a premium on spectacle, and we get more and more movies made from comic books and about super heroes with super powers. While these films are often amazing to look at, I find them oftentimes lacking in plot and character development.  For example, I recently saw the film Interstellar. I've admired much of the director, Christopher Nolan's, previous work, particularly the way he played with storytelling conventions in Memento and Inception. However, I found myself disappointed with Interstellar. It was gorgeous to look at, but ultimately it fell flat. It felt like consuming the empty calories of a Twinkie. In the end, I didn't care or identify enough with any of the characters; I didn't feel I was invested enough in them to make the suspense Nolan wanted the audience to experience work.  It became just another in a long line of "hero races against the clock and saves the world in the nick of time" formulaic releases, even when time is bent by black holes and dark matter.

Then there's television. This is one area you won't find me pining for the old days.  Television has always been 90%  crap. The first priority was to sell products. Stories and characters were always secondary, and any attempts to develop either plot or characters had to fit in between the important parts, the commercial breaks, and had to be wrapped up in a tidy bow before the end of the time slot, so the whole process could start over the following week. Cable television has turned into an even bigger waste of time, with hour after hour of cheaply made and tedious "reality" shows filling the airwaves.

But at some point, a minor storytelling revolution started fermenting, and a small but talented group of filmmakers finally began to realize the powerful potential that was always unique to television. Television has always been the most intimate of our entertainment choices, as it comes to us in our homes. Radio does the same thing, but with sound only. Movies take about a year to make, and are constrained by about a two hour time limit. Plus, you have to get out of your house and go to a theater.

Television is limited only by the constraints of the advertisers paying for the airtime.  It is the natural medium for telling a longer story, because the story can easily be broken into smaller chunks, or episodes that can be made quickly (compared to movies) and delivered directly to the audience's home. Time can be taken to develop characters and explore deeper plot lines that simply isn't available to movies.

However, the sponsors who are selling products have little appetite for the things that make a compelling story. Anything that might make the audience even slightly uncomfortable is avoided like the plague. And anyone who knows anything about storytelling knows how difficult it is to engage an audience without making them uncomfortable.

Then, in 1990, the bizarre and eccentric filmmaker David Lynch, who, in films like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, specialized in making movies that made viewers squirm, decided he'd try his hand at television. Lynch's films were rich in atmosphere and told their stories from the inside of his characters out. In 1990, he brought these storytelling techniques to network television with his enigmatic series, Twin Peaks. On the surface, Twin Peaks was a mystery, about the murder of a popular and beautiful high school student in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. It was really about the deeper exploration of themes Lynch presented in Blue Vellvet; how just beneath the surface of the typical, idyllic American small town lies a dark world of violence and depravity. Twin Peaks took place where these two worlds intersected, and both became increasingly surreal.

Initially, viewers responded enthusiastically, as Twin Peaks became fodder for water cooler talk. People responded to the bizarre characters and twists, even if they didn't understand what they were seeing. But the show soon proved too weird; audiences were used to television shows that hit them over the head with obviousness, and Twin Peaks left them scratching their heads. Shortly into its second season, the network grew nervous that Lynch was losing his audience and made him reveal the girl's killer sooner than Lynch had planned. The revelation of Laura Palmer's killer killed any momentum the show still had, and it was cancelled after the completion of the second season.

The fleeting success of Twin Peaks planted the seeds that would eventually grow and blossom into television's finest moments. Lessons were learned. First, the success of the first season of Twin Peaks showed that there was an audience hungry for complex and original storytelling.  Second, it showed that network television, with its need to satisfy advertisers and its thirst for ratings, probably wasn't the ideal place for such ground breaking storytelling. Third, the standard paradigm informing the life cycle of a television series, to run it for season after season until it lost its audience, was challenged. The brief run of Twin Peaks and its inability to maintain the momentum of the first year established an arc to the stories that would soon be told.

A few years later, The Sopranos premiered.  Instead of network television, The Sopranos aired on HBO. Free from the pressures of commercial sponsors and network censors, The Sopranos was able to develop at its own pace and tell a story that hadn't been told before, about the personal life of the head of a crime family, in the same language and violence Martin Scorsese used in his gangster films. The difference was that every week, the Sopranos came into its audience's living rooms, and there was time to plunge into the depths of the characters. There was an intimacy we felt watching a brutal and powerful man balance the same everyday banalities we all deal with at the same time he was wrestling with his own internal demons; all while trying to keep his finger on the pulse of the organized crime syndicate he was leader of.

The Sopranos paved the way for a "new wave" of television shows like Dexter, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and the sublime Breaking Bad. These shows are attracting talented actors, writers, and directors and have completely changed the rules. Some day we may look back at this decade as a renaissance, the true golden age of television, when the medium finally achieved its awesome potential to deliver the highest quality of entertainment into people's homes.

There are so many of these shows now that it's difficult for anyone with a life to keep up--when you're a stodgy old codger like myself who has been conditioned to turn the television set on only for sports, it's overwhelming. But from time to time I try, and occasionally I am rewarded for my efforts.

Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood, about to let us in on a secret
Recently, I went to Netflix (high tech stuff for a fossil like me) and started watching the series House of Cards, and I am officially hooked. It's taken me a week to watch the thirteen episodes that make up season one (I don't have the stamina for marathon viewing like so many of the young 'uns do these days--thirteen episode in seven days is about at fast as I can go) and I can't wait to see what unfolds in season two.

House of Cards stars Kevin Spacey as the deeply cynical, highly manipulative, and brilliantly evil congressman Francis Underwood, and it's perfect casting. I can't think of another actor whose love of and devotion to his craft comes through as clearly articulated in his performances. His mentor, the great Jack Lemmon, is the only one who comes to mind. Whether it's Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects or the man going through a mid-life crisis in American Beauty, Spacey throws himself into each role, he inhabits the character, and he invites the audience into the character with him, so we see out of the character's eyes what Spacey sees.

What makes Underwood such a perfect character for Spacey to play is the fact that Underwood himself spends half of his time acting, as he schemes and manipulates his way through an incredibly complex and evil plan he has to gain even more power. The show is told from Underwood's perspective, and from time to time he breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to us, letting us in on what he's really up to. Underwood is a character of fascinating depth, with surprising and effective traces of vulnerability that rise from time to time; just enough to keep us on his side, even as he is perverting everything public service is supposed to be.

Robin Wright as Claire Underwood
Underwood's wife, Claire (played by Robin Wright), is his equal in  every way--in depth and capability, and in the capacity for evil. To say that Underwood and Claire have a unique and complex relationship would be an understatement. They are the ultimate power couple. Their marriage is open, yet they are devoted to each other in ways that transcend the physical. They truly love each other, but more than that, they deeply respect each other. Respect is the deepest and most powerful emotion either one of them is capable of, and is reserved for nothing except each other and raw power.

As Claire, Wright is a revelation. In her film work, she never really made much of an impression on me. But here, playing an incredibly complex character who has even more layers than Underwood, she is absolutely brilliant. She gives Claire a blank and expressionless face that at times can be warm and beautiful, cold and unfeeling, or sensual and smoldering.

Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes - she might look young and innocent ...
For those of us who love memorable characters, House of Cards is an all-you-can-eat buffet. There's the young and ambitious reporter Zoe Barnes (played by Kate Mara), who at first comes across as young and naive; she quickly shatters that first impression. Soon she ingratiates herself into the halls of political power, and Underwood uses her as his unnamed source, leaking stories that advance his Machiavellian agenda. But as she climbs her way up to celebrity status, it becomes clear she is using Frank just as successfully as he is using her. A begrudging respect for each other emerges, but neither one trusts the other, even as they begin a sexual affair. They both struggle to convince the other that they are really in control, even as they both seem to be spinning out of control.

Another fascinating character is Underwood's loyal and trustworthy chief of staff, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly). Stamper is every bit as slimy and cynical as Underwood, but he is endlessly loyal.   He is also a recovering alcoholic, and every now and then he reveals just enough traces of decency to make you wonder why he goes along with Underwood's endless scheming and manipulating.

One of my favorite characters from the first season is the junior representative from Pennsylvania, Peter Russo (Coey Stoll). Russo is a young and divorced father of two children. He cones from a working class background and he earnestly wants to help his constituents. He is also a pathological drug and alcohol addict and womanizer. But you don't have to dig too deep to see that in his heart, Russo is a kind and decent man struggling with his demons, who loves his children more than anything. It's these internal conflicts that make Russo vulnerable, and while we see that vulnerability, Underwood also sees it, and uses it to his twisted advantage. Russo becomes one of Underwood's pawns in his cynical and corrupt plan, and we watch helplessly as the tragic events unfold.

All of these characters are so well drawn because time is made for each of them, and the writing is first rate. This is what makes the show so compelling. Each episode is presented as a chapter, and that's what House of Cards is: it's a novel. Like all good novels, it takes the time to establish real and human characters and flesh them out, so we have enough information to really understand why they behave the way they do when the plot summons them. Like a good novel, it engages us in the narrative early on, and the parts developing characters advance the narrative at the same time. Finally, like a good novel. it has a style and a cadence all its own. In House of Cards, the style is in the visuals, the rhythm is in the dialogue. It carries the viewer along to the end of each chapter. As each chapter ends, more is revealed, and more is introduced. The viewer is given enough information to more fully view and understand how events fit in to the overarching plot, while at the same time, more characters and story lines are introduced to keep us guessing. I've seen all of season one, and I can't think of a single superfluous moment in the thirteen episodes. It's lean and tight and highly efficient storytelling.

The Underwoods: the ultimate power couple
Seasons one and two of House of Cards were released on Netflix in their entirety in February of 2013 and 2014, respectively. Season three will be released at the end of this month. This is the future of television: it still comes directly into your home, but now the viewer has total control. Any episode can be watched at any time, on any device. The viewer is in charge, and doesn't have to put up with the Jolly Green Giant or the Maytag Repairman or those constant "ask your doctor" pharmaceutical ads.

Why, back in my day, we never had it so good ...


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