I have enjoyed the Netflix series House of Cards, but I fear it is about to lose its appeal. This is a spoiler alert. If you have not seen all of the episodes, stop reading now.
To recap, House of Cards follows the story of a deliciously unscrupulous congressman, Frank Underwood, and his efforts to exact revenge on those who prevented him from being appointed to Secretary of State.
For me, the initial appeal of the show was Frank Underwood's character, masterfully played by Kevin Spacey, and the character's villainous efforts to reach the top. Frank is so wonderfully low that even his initials, FU, tell a tale all by themselves. In the first season's premiere episode, he does not save the cat (an insider's reference that demonstrates the kindness of a hero), but instead he nonchalantly strangles a wounded dog. He has no redeeming characteristics whatsoever, nor does his wife, Claire, beautifully played by Robin Wright. It's a story of the blissful marriage between Darth Vader and Cruella de Vil and their efforts to destroy the other self-serving inhabitants of Washington DC.
Though the overall storyline is quite compelling, I believe the narrative is in grave risk of becoming monotonous due to two narrative misfires and their unintended consequences. This is not because of creative choices the storytellers have made. It's deeper than that. It's due to strategic choices that lay beneath.
Strategic Misfire One: The storytellers made Frank too powerful and his enemies too weak. By season two, it was like watching a huge cat gleefully play with small mice right before he eats them. Frank always wins. Being smarter, faster, and more devious, he is never at risk for more than 60 minutes of screen time. He tossed one reporter who threatened to expose him into the path of a train. He got another one sent to prison. He motivated the vice president to step down so that he could take his spot. Ditto for the president.
A central problem is that there is no real hero who is strong enough to combat Frank. Instead, his opponents fall into one of two categories; they are either good guys who are far too weak or bad guys who are not as devious. Frank has become the Darth Vader of his universe, destroying the meek for two seasons. Sooner or later, an observant viewer will certainly ask, "Hey...when is Luke Skywalker going to show up?" But no Luke Skywalker has arrived as yet. And so Frank has the sole power of the Force. Many times he has simply whispered subtle suggestions into his opponents' ears to make them unwittingly follow his every command. "These aren't the droids you are looking for", he might tell opponents, and they mindlessly allow him to escape. Frank's power titers on the implausible.
Unfortunately for House of Cards, mass audiences love to identify with strong heroes in hopes that they will eventually bring justice to an unjust world. I realize that villains are in vogue these days and some shows have done quite well with no apparent hero. Breaking Bad comes to mind. You can read my previous Huffington Post article on that issue here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gene-del-vecchio/hollywood-villains-empowered-heroes-impotent_b_4763644.html
But stories with strong heroes nearly always draw more viewers than those without them. This is a strategic decision, not simply a creative one. As the Joker, played by Heath Ledger, told Batman in the brilliant film The Dark Knight, "I don't, I don't want to kill you! What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no, NO! No. You... you... complete me."
Frank needs to face a hero who is strong enough to complete him. Without it, the narrative will become increasingly boring.
Strategic Misfire Two: Frank got his wish too soon. He clawed his way from congressmen to vice president by the end of season one (13 episodes). He became president by the end of season 2 (13 episodes). Wow! That was fast. So after only 26 episodes, Frank's primary goal has been fulfilled, and so a lot of narrative tension may vanish. Unless he wants to be king of the world, his only future battles will be with people far less powerful than he. Sure, his goal to suppress the truth and stay out of jail are worthy (and Nixonian), but that seems pedestrian compared to the goal he has already attained.
To aggravate this issue further, Netflix makes the entire season of episodes available at the same time, thus shortening an already compressed narrative timeline. This promotes binge-viewing. Yes, this can create added excitement surrounding the series. One estimate revealed that over six hundred thousand Netflix subscribers polished off the entire second season in a weekend (I was one of them). This prepared us to discuss the storyline with other binge-viewers. But when we binge-view, the rush is over far too quickly. In my household, Frank went from congressmen to vice president in less than two days. Ditto for his rise to the oval office. This made the narrative feel even more implausible.
I can certainly understand that launching a new series in its entirety can serve to hook viewers quickly and create buzz. But once they are hooked, it would seem that creating intervals between the availability of new episodes would give viewers a more enriching, drawn out fix. In addition, when the episodes are consumed all at once, the time that viewers must wait for the next season is longer. I have grown tired of waiting a full year for other shows to return, and thus jumped to newer and shinier shows instead. So just because Netflix can provide all of the episodes at once to create short term buzz, does not mean it is the best long term strategy.
I enjoy House of Cards. But if any of the creators are within sight of these keystrokes, consider a couple strategic alterations. Make it much harder for Frank to succeed, perhaps by giving him a real and powerful hero with which to contend. Allow him to fail far more than the length of an episode because easy, fast wins become dreadfully boring. And don't give us all of the episodes at once even if we beg for them (which we will). At most, feed us a couple episodes per week so that we can savor the tension.