This could be the year when everything changed. Though there has been a gradual shift evolving over the past decade– beginning with David Simon’s The Wire, continuing through with The Sopranos and Mad Men — now with David Fincher’s House of Cards, Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake and Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace all hitting television this year; it isn’t just that viewers are turning to TV because the movie experience is more disappointing; it’s that audiences are turning to TV because of its own undeniable heat. Honored by the American Academy in Rome Monday night Bernardo Bertolucci says he’s discouraged by the Hollywood he once revered: “The American films I like now do not come from Hollywood studios but from television series, like ‘Mad Men’, ‘Breaking Bad’, ‘The Americans.”
House of Cards took everyone by surprise. Much was made of the idea that House of Cards couldn’t build buzz because it wasn’t being rolled out week by week; audiences couldn’t involve themselves in the plot, cook up conspiracy theories, or attach themselves to any one storyline. Since fandom drives so much of what makes any TV show popular, it was thought that none could be built for House of Cards. It was there to be swallowed whole, the entire story arc, all ten episodes. Viewers devoured it. But in some sense, no one knew how to manage it — it was unharnessed power, and it was out now. The kind of darkness at work, though tongue-in-cheek, speaks honestly to the sentiment of the time, how most of us view our government officials: Trust no one. Worse, behind every great leader is a team of self-serving corrupt vipers. The one bright spot in House of Cards, is Corey Stoll, who tries to do the right thing, the idealistic thing, and fails. House of Cards came on the heels of President Obama’s re-election, so it didn’t quite capture the liberal zeitgeist, that the best of the two contenders had won. The more cynical among us doesn’t see much of a difference between the two.
David Fincher, the Edgar Allen Poe of film directors, refused to fill House of Cards with uplifting characters. Because he had the freedom of the format being Netflix, he could head towards discomfort, not run from it. When Kevin Spacey goes down on Kate Mara while she’s calling her father for Father’s Day, who among us wasn’t icked out? Maybe at some point that repulsion flipped, and it became a turn-on. Either way, it was the kind of thing you couldn’t really unsee. Or forget.