I provided that lengthy bit of history in my previous post as a way to give context for why House of Cards is so revolutionary. The transition from the broadcast model to an internet-based streaming model will undoubtedly change the perception of television as a storytelling medium.
The Crumbling House – A Future?
Traditionally, communities have gathered around television sets at a predetermined time to watch the latest update to their show, lest they miss an episode and the series fall into chaos and confusion (I’m looking at you, Lost). Like I mentioned earlier, VCRs and DVRs made missing an episode less catastrophic until it just became easier to record more and more episodes and watch them when you were bored on a Saturday night instead of tired on a Wednesday night. Or in my case, as a suspense tortured seventh grader waiting for the latest episode of 24, it became a more pleasant experience to stockpile episodes and wait for winter break (and the binging) to begin.
Either way, time-shifting episodes of a series removes the process of watching from the weekly communal experience of decades past to a more personal experience. Admittedly, part of the fun of watching a show on its regular schedule is the ability to compare notes with fellow viewers the following morning. Although, I do think I was the only one to ever write up actual notes — index cards with talking points based on the most recent episode of House MD when I was in high school.
However, because of the increasing flexibility surrounding when an episode can actually be watched, it is becoming less and less common for fellow viewers to be up to speed at the same time. Watching television episodes is becoming less communal and more individual. And it is starting to become apparent.
As if in a nod to the revised method of story viewing, Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood in House of Cards delivers his viewer several real nods and theatrical asides. He commentates directly into the camera in a seemingly private conversation with the viewer who no longer watches as part of a communal group, but on their own. In the same way that Francis keeps several of his fingers in several pies, he likewise breaks down the boundary of the fourth wall and drags us inside to become accomplices to his shady dealings in Washington D.C. Willing or not, we become participants in his madness, powerless (as always in fiction) to stop or influence his actions but feeling all the more trapped because we are going through this alone. Francis leads us on a journey but traps us for the duration, from start to finish.
It’s fitting that in a show about control and power dynamics, the viewer would find him or herself in a silent power struggle with the show itself, battling for who has control over whom. We are left to our own devices to set the pace of this relationship, but many of us choose to plow forward and plunge head over heels into obsession. Yes, we can click on the screen and stop the show, but can we really? Do we choose to? For some, yes, but for most, absolutely not.
In its control and manipulation of us, its viewer, House of Cards also makes a statement about the traditional model of broadcast television. In light of declining rates of cable subscription, the familiar business model is starting to resemble a shaky house of cards on its own. Twenty years from now, how will most people watch television content? What about fifty years?
One important point mentioned in a recent blog post in the New York Times, the open availability of so many episodes makes it difficult to discuss the show in public, out of politeness to those within earshot. The morning after chats will decrease, but as I mentioned, they were already on the decline. Regardless, out of consideration to readers who have not yet had their week of Cards madness, I will abstain from delving too deeply into the content of the series and save those articles for later posts.
There is no clear date on when to expect season two, but everyone in withdrawal expects that we’re in it for the long haul. Until season two premieres, the roomie and I will continue our search for a new show to fill the meantime. Maybe I’ll finally watch Downton Abbey.