The amount of television shows that are being created today is at an astronomically high level thanks to the new Internet streaming model pioneered by Netflix. Not even five years ago this model of releasing an entire season of a show at once, exclusively online, seemed like a sure fire way to waste millions of dollars. Yet, today the best shows that are currently on TV have come from this model. In order to understand how this new model broke into the rigid world that is the Television industry, we must look at the first installment in the model, House of Cards. At the beginning of 2013, Netflix debuted its first original programming by releasing all thirteen episodes of the first season of House of Cards. In order to show the rest of the television world that Netflix was not only here to compete with cable television but also premium cable such as HBO and Showtime, the first season budget was set at $100 million allowing Netflix to bring in high-profile Hollywood names to work on the project such as Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, and David Fincher. With the table set, it was up to Netflix to deliver a bombshell of a show in order to show the world the possibilities a streaming service was capable of. As we all know, Netflix’s gamble paid off as House of Cards is not only critically successful, with 33 Primetime Emmy nominations, but also beloved by millions as it is currently Netflix’s second most watched show. Now the real question that remains, is how did a show with such an unorthodox model become so successful? As always, Celluloid Cinema is here to break it down for you. In fact, the whole appeal of the show can be condensed down to one word: anti-hero.
Not only in television, but in film as well, audiences have always been fascinated with the concept of the anti-hero. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, an anti-hero is the protagonist of the story who does not have the common traits that we associate a protagonist with having. Usually this means that the anti-hero is involved with, or promotes, unethical things such as murder or crime. The reason that audiences are so fascinated with this type of protagonist is because through them, audiences are able to live out their fantasies of doing whatever they want to reach their goal without worrying about the consequences of the law or society. This is how shows like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad were able to become so popular. They both had these dominating male lead characters that were willing to do whatever it takes to reach their goal no matter how immoral the actions or the goal was for that matter. However, in these shows the lead characters had fatal flaws that either lead to their downfall or caused them to not always be in control of their situation. This is where House of Cards differentiates itself from the rest of the field. The lead character in House of Cards, Frank Underwood, is always in control of what is happening around him, even if it appears that he is losing his grasp on a situation it does not take him long to regain his position at the top. Because Underwood’s character is constructed to be this ultimate unstoppable anti-hero, the makers of the show are able to tap deep into the audience’s obsession with the anti-hero and use it as the driving force for the show. Because this seems like such a straightforward simple technique, you may be left questioning why other shows have not used this hyper extreme anti-hero construct previously. The reason in which it has not been done is quite simple, it is hard to make a character like this and build a world around him that makes the idea of his existence believable.
When a show has a character that is as overtly dominating as Frank Underwood, it limits a lot of the realism that the show is able to project, because a character so dominating would clearly already be at the position he wants to be, which would mean the show’s objective would not make sense. However, the way House of Cards gets around it is why House of Cards is such a great example of television writing. In order to combat the extreme power Underwood is able to command throughout the show, the writers of the show built a world where every other character is an anti-hero as well. When a character is introduced to the audience in the show, if they do not fit the clear definition of an anti-hero then they are mercilessly ripped to shreds by their more ruthless counterparts or are only in a few brief scenes. The only lasting characters that are left on the show are the ones that are able to be just as immoral and cold hearted as Underwood. By surrounding Underwood with a cast that is this power driven it makes the audience believe that Underwood could exist in this world and still be struggling to be on top because there are others that have the possibility of matching his power. In addition to having this world of anti-heroes to balance out the sheer power Underwood exerts, this plethora of anti-heroes feeds into the audience’s Infatuations with these character types. Not only are they able to get the rush of living out their unethical fantasies when the main character is on screen, but they are also able to thrive off of the same feel when minor characters are on screen. This means that no matter how slow the story is moving the audience is unable to realize it and is always enticed in what is unfolding on the screen. This gives the writers of the show so much leeway as they are now able to use entire episodes as set ups for future events to unfold without the audience feeling like the show is boring or dropping in quality.
In sum, House of Cards was able to become the show that changed the way the world thinks of television because Netflix clearly understood that in order to do something great you need to bring in those that are experienced with their crafts like Spacey and Fincher. Once these additions were brought in on the project they were able to use the fascination that the audiences had with a certain idea, in this case the antihero, and exploit every aspect of it in order for the to make sure every department responsible for creating the show would have their negatives overlooked by the audience’s distraction. House of Cards is not only going to be a show that goes down in history as a show that revolutionized television watching but as the culmination of the anti-hero that audiences have been obsessing over for decades in television. For anyone who has not seen House of Cards I highly suggest that it be the next show you catch up on as Frank Underwood will be returning March 4th to Netflix for season four of House of Cards.