All TV series are created on a spectrum. The criterion that places shows on this spectrum is how much they are beholden to others. House of Cards has just redefined the limits of this spectrum and will go down as a landmark show in the history of TV.
To understand what House of Cards has done, and how it will forever change TV, we must examine the spectrum that existed before this show. The spectrum is, in order: network, cable, premium. The descending order does not reflect budgets — as we can see from Boardwalk Empire's $18 million pilot — but rather the extent to which the shows on the channel are at the mercy of others.
A network show is beholden to the ratings, the focus groups, the FCC, the advertisers, and conventional programming blocks and genres, to name a few. It would be difficult to underestimate the effect that any of these have on a TV show. A network show must draw audiences of millions upon millions to succeed and draw in advertisers who will pay good money. To do this, they need to hook us, and then keep us watching from commercial break to commercial break, week to week. This is why network shows float in a sea of sexy affairs, cliffhangers, easily-digestible story-lines, likable characters, and, of course, a lack of objectionable material.
Cable shows strip away some of these obligations, and premium channels like HBO strip away even more. On HBO, you can drop the "f" bomb. You can take your time in developing plotlines, knowing that minute-to-minute, episode-to-episode viewership is unimportant. This led to a boom of quality television the likes of which we'd never seen, starting with The Sopranos and continuing today in many, many shows. This boom was echoed on cable TV with shows like Mad Men.
But even HBO has its limitations, limitations we are only starting to realize. It still only produces shows that are episodic, that have a linear arc, and that air in half-hour or hour-long chunks, minus the occasional two-hour season finale.
I should take an aside here and mention that, like the electromagnetic "ROYGBIV" spectrum, there is video content that exists outside of our visible spectrum. The reason this content, like YouTube webisodes, remains largely invisible, is because of money. They don't have it, so we don't see it.
This brings us to Netflix and House of Cards. We may now officially see the TV spectrum like this: network-cable-premium-Netflix. It has invested the same money as the big boys — $100 million for 26 House of Cards episodes — while having none of their limitations. None.
I can't overstate the importance of that. Netflix has no obligation to create episodic content, or linear content, or half-hour/hour-long shows. The only obligation they have is to create compelling content that brings in subscribers. That's it. Lilyhammer was Netflix experimenting. House of Cards is Netflix investing.
House of Cards is only the first step in this TV revolution. It still features many of the attributes of a normal TV show. Episodes are roughly 50 minutes each, and the season arc is linear. It breaks from the TV norm in one major way, however. The episodes did not come out weekly, all being released simultaneously on February 1. This fundamentally alters the structure of TV as we know it and essentially achieves David Simon's dream: for TV seasons to be treated like novels, with each episode as a chapter.
It's fitting, then, that the episodes are not titled, except as "Chapter 1," "Chapter 2," and so on. This also breaks how we experience a TV show. In no publication will you read an episode recap or review (OK, I'm sure there's somebody out there doing this, but basically nobody), just like you wouldn't read a chapter review of a novel. We are not discussing individual House of Cards episodes with each other in between views, just like we don't talk about books between chapters. The way we as a public are reacting to House of Cards is, for all intents and purposes, the same way we treat a book release. We're not getting fed bite-size chunks each week anymore. We're being handed a Porterhouse.
The next step in this revolution is Arrested Development, whose fourth season has been picked up by Netflix. This will strip away even more of the characteristics of TV as we know it. The episodes will have varying lengths and won't be in any particular order. Each focuses on one member of the Bluth family, and the season is meant to be viewed as a whole. Mind-blowing to imagine what comes after that. This is TV's modernism movement.
Let's be fair: House of Cards is not a groundbreaking series by its own merits. It's a solid political thriller that's got a lot of things going for it: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, Corey Stoll, Michael Kelly, all of which put on an acting clinic and invite us to watch. David Fincher sets a cold and calculating tone for the whole series, reminiscent of The Social Network. The downfall of the show is its writing, which is simply overdone and riddled with clichés.
House of Cards is a groundbreaking series because of what it represents. It is the first major investment in a new realm of televised entertainment. Netflix has laid claim to its territory at the new end of the spectrum, and I can't wait to see what they do with it.