The International Press Academy 2012 Satellite Awards

 

After its 2011 public relations catastrophe, Netflix is back on track with its first original television show, "House of Cards" (2013) starring Kevin Spacey, who also executive produces. About a corrupt politician in the perpetually horse-trading, if not outright venal, Washington DC, "House of Cards" is an icon for our era. 


Certainly, CEO Reed Hasting would not have tried to split Netflix's fees, into one for mailorder DVDs, the other for web streaming, which gave all the appearances of a scam, if he had already seen Spacey's Congressional Whip Francis Underwood in action. 

An excellent and stylish entree into the over -tested and -crowded television market, "House of Cards" equals anything from the networks or cable and is a first for a company from Silicon Valley, which is famous for its hardware and software but not content.Nerds don't do narrative has been the rule, the only exception being Steve Jobs who presciently partnered on Pixar. 

"House of Cards" also may herald a maturing of Bay Area programming—albeit shot in Maryland by LA-based Media Rights Capital and Spacey's Trigger Street Productions— once upon a time the promise of Current TV. 

After faltering since 2010, see CS's Current TV’s Crisis, Al Gore and partner Joel Hyatt sold Current TV, headquartered across the street from the Giant's San Francisco ballpark, in December to Al Jazeera. That gave the Qatar-based news channel a much needed foothold in North America and viewers a similarly crucial news variety. Although the ex-VP/brief-Prez claims The Jeez is a progressive, indie and green channel, despite its obvious oil funding and anti-Israel bias (the greenest place in the Middle East), the sale doesn't bode well for Current's dramaturge or production values.
 

 

"House of Cards", however, has this in spades. It is showrun by Beau Bummel, the talented young playwright who wrote "Farrugut North", which became the Clooney-directed "The Ides of March" (2011). 

Although Netflix reputedly tested it to death, everyone knows congress's abysmal standing. Add Spacey as the masterful anti-hero and a formula worked out 20 years ago in the identically-titled English four-part special and—poof!—TV magic. With its 13 episodes released at once, the viewer is allowed weekly installments or the notorious new viewing style: The Binge. 

Stacey has been critiqued for playing with, instead of against, type, but he does a good job of interpreting evil. In the very first scene, he breaks a dog's neck to put it out of its misery from a car accident, a triage service he provides for a disgraced politician a few episodes later. But he wins us back with his pragmatism and star-power, inflated by periodic turns to the audience.

A time-honored technique since Shakespeare, the breaking of the fourth wall is absurdly in vogue these days. Now standard on comedy shows, degenerating to a parlor trick to gin up protagonist sympathy. Used in the original "House of Cards", it was watered down to the knowing glances of "The Office", which also copies an English version (in that case much better). 

"House of Cards", Netflix's one show, easily overshadows almost the entire dozen offerings of Hulu, its main competitor and the dominant web TV provider other than YouTube. Only Hulu's "The Promise" breaks new ground by diving into the even more complex politics and emotions of Israel/Palestine. 

I can easily imagine the Hulu execs thinking, when they began content buying or creation in 2009: "If TV is this stupid, anyone can make it." But they have yet to have a hit, crippled by their concentration on sophomoric situational comedies as well as the near endless competition. Indeed, as if there wasn't already way too many, everyone and their brother is becoming a content generator: Amazon, Microsoft, AOL, Sony and perhaps even San Francisco's Twitter—the "No nerds allowed" law be damned.
 

 

Although Hulu is headquartered in LA, it should be called the "English Channel" given that they import virtually everything from there, without even the courtesy of a remake to offset British class issues, stumbling self-effacement and rampant-if-vanilla sex. But Americans enjoy their "Englishvision", immensely, as we can see by the surprising success of "Downton Abby" (2010-), a sleeper hit for Public Television, perhaps as a type of schadenfreude aversion therapy.

So why does so much America television comes from England? While we remain a colony culturally, it is the 51st state. In addition to lapping up all Americana of interest, their Shakespearian and Dickensian traditions provide a drama-educated public and their sophistication puts them ahead of the curve. Plus, they are the perfect massive test market, although that role is being superseded by the Web itself.

Ironically, Hulu started supposedly classless in 2007, championing the free-web ethos and innovation in stylish ads starring Alec Baldwin. But its execs soon reverted to commercialization with a vengeance—even running ads in Hulu Plus, its subscription program, which started in 2010 and costs $8 a month. Netflix has no commercials but costs the same, although with mail order DVDs twice that. 

By 2010, Hulu had almost a billion streams monthly, second only to YouTube, which started in 2005 and has commercialized even more. Hulu revenue ramped up 60 percent the two last years in row, to $695 million, while YouTube brought in a whopping $3.6 billion gross, although at least half had to be handed back to partners or banks after years of losses. Meanwhile, Netflix has some 25 million customers and earnings equal to YouTube.

Hulu can hardly be singled out for the sorry state of television. Although longform storytelling was hailed as the next big thing and "The Sopranos" revolutionized the medium in 1999, that show ended in 2007. There has been no zeitgeist-galvanizing show since, save "Breaking Bad" (2008-, AMC) and "Girls" (2012-, HBO), the best on offer in chick and macho TV respectively.
 

 

"Breaking Bad" took the "Sopranos"'s now-obsolete mafia West to explore the amoral but still descent everyman in a vicious new territory carved out by the Cohen Brothers' "No Country for Old Men" (2007). Written by Cormack McCarthy, "No Country" crowned a life work of telling the dark South West story that started after Mexican-America War. In a world at war, from Afghanistan to Mali, as well as Northern Mexico again, "Breaking Bad" symbolizes that how far down in the dirt the average American will go to fight an even deeper evil.

In "Girls" (2012, HBO), Lena Dunham is pioneering an inverse, female ethos: How down in the dirt women will go to get functional sex, work and art. Dunham first explored this terrain in her art house hit "Little Furniture" (2010), a perfect portrait of self-involvement in New York's private school and downtown art denizen set, which she shoestringed on a Canon SLR—without so much as a pan or a zoom. Arguably the next quantum leap in female intimacy and overexposure since Anais Nin, "Girls" is nothing less than a chick flick revolution. 

But everything else on television, from police procedurals to nerd situationals and medical machinations—everything save reality and contest shows—has been lackluster at best. "Grey's Anatomy" (ABC, 2003-) and "The Big Bang Theory" (CBS, 2007-) are the two most popular show on the tube, for god's sake! No wonder 80 shows have already been cancelled in 2013, including the overly slapstick but cute "30 Rock" (NBC, 2006-) and the similar but less talented "Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23" (ABC, 2012). 

Last year, a massive 120 shows went down, from "Are You There Chelsea?" (NBC), "One Tree Hill" (The CW) and "Friends with Benefits" (NBC) to "Desperate Housewives" (ABC) and " Hung (HBO), both popular with the ladies, as well as "Dog the Bounty Hunter" (Nat Geo Wild), ditto for the men. 

Sadly, the culling included "Weeds" (2005-12, Showtime), one of the more revolutionary shows around, since it facilitated the enjoyable emoting of Mary-Louse Parker and the normalizing nationwide of California consciousness. Over a decade into the new millennia, however, we need something new.
 

 

Enter "House of Cards". Fully tech- and sex- savvy, it features a bunch of strong characters surfing the wake of Spacey's moral ambiguity: the ambitious girl reporter, Chloe, well-played by the 30-going-on-20 Kate Mara; the young congressman from the wrong side of the tracks, similarly standup by Corey Stoll; and Robin Wright as Spacey's wife, his literal partner in crime, although she does develop second thoughts. 

As with all great characters from the Iliad to Hitchcock, they struggle back and forth across the ethical frontlines trying to figure what is too evil to allow. By the end of "House of Cards" 13th episode, a lack luster cliff hanger still shines when Wright's character starts to turn towards love.

No such luck in Hulu's "The Promise", where the lead, a Jewish-English sergeant played by Christian Cooke, also kills a dog, albeit late in the story. By that point, he has rejected the notion of transcendental love for a more status-quo loyalty. Written and directed by Peter Kosminsky, an Englishman who has done Hollywood features ("White Oleander" 2002), "The Promise" has both complex characters and problems and great production values. The constantly roving hand-held camera and slow-build scenes (it shows in four parts, 80 min each) give it a low-budget, intimate feel, despite big sets and casts. 

Being English works in "The Promise"'s favor—finally!—given it follows two stories, one of a young English Jewish woman, played by Claire Foy, who accompanies her Israeli BFF back to Israel, and that of her grandfather who, after liberating concentration camps in WWII went on to try policing the 1948 Holy Land. This structure enables Kosminsky to cut from dumping bodies into mass graves to girls on a Tel Aviv shopping spree, edgy Israel-themed material we haven't seen the likes of since the Arab-Jewish co-production "Paradise Now" (2005). 

Although "The Promise", like Al Jazeera, leaves out some of facts—the Arabs also expelled 900,000 Jews, making the Israel-Palestine Bummer a simple land swap—and it weaves in too much—Foy's character hops from Hebron to a house in Gaza about to be destroyed by the Israelis for providing a suicide bomber—it is a venture where few artists let alone television artists dare to tread. Indeed, Israel/Palestine is where more culture and veiwpoints—like Al Jazeera—are desperately needed. 

Why can't Hulu achieve "The Promise" quality elsewhere is a mystery. You'd think "Fresh Meat" by the stars of the brilliant "Peep Show" (2003-12)—the longest running series in English TV history!—would be of interest but no. 
 

 

If only Hulu had remade "Peep Show" in San Francisco, the iconic place for its spaced out hippie and bumbling nerd, played by Robert Webb and David Mitchell respectively, and included its innovative way of showing character POV—by having the shot itself nodding or being obscured by a glass when the person drinks—they would have had their hit.

Indeed, if only Hulu had remade ALL its English imports in America! Oakland's burgeoning art and restaurant scene would have been perfect for their kitchen comedy "Whites", although obviously the name would have to change. Conversely, their people-of-color comedy—"Little Mosque", one of two shows imported from Canada—is as bland as the town in which it is set, its writers content to recycle jokes from the "Axis of Evil Tour", by three Muslim comedians, of 2005. 

What we need is a Silicon Valley story with all the self-exposure of "Girls" and the cut throat of "Breaking Bad", with characters from the ghettos and the heights of Palo Alto, showing the heaven and hell of California, replete with impossible romanticism, social insecurities and celebrity obsession as well as the odd annual tradition (among some) of "going primitive" at Burning Man. 

That might be a good ticket for Netflix's next outing, which will have to cut to the bone and go for the jugular to succeed. Alas, reports indicate the next of Netflix's four new shows, coming in April 2013, is the horror series, "Hemlock Grove" helmed by Director Eli Roth, understandable since supernatural tops today's TV hit lists.

For the next installment of "House of Cards", we will have to wait till the fall of 2013.

 

Adrienne Papp