Category Archives: House of Cards

Death is Underrated: Televisual Politics in House of Cards

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A handful of you might be wondering why I didn’t post last week. Quite simply, I ran out of time to get a post going. This big-time blogging is proving a little hard to keep up, so I’ve decided I’ll take the last Sunday of each month off to regroup so I can continue to churn out some solid analyses.

In more exciting news, I’ll be having two friends help me in expanding this website into a media analysis blog. Tom Reed will be our resident film dude while Will Povey (who’s been waving his editorial wand over the blog since its first post) will be looking at novels both old and new. They’re currently working on their first write-ups and you can expect to see them soon! More regular posts means a name change to the blog in the coming days, which is good because I might’ve copped some flak from a certain Scottish newspaper sooner or later. I’m also looking to tee up some consistent music analysis from another friend, so watch this space in the coming weeks for that.

As is the case with my own posts, analysis of weekly items will be the focus of my blogging buddies. Ironically, House of Cards (the series for this week’s entry) warrants a bit of criticism – directed solely at the distribution model of its maker:

Netflix should be available in my friggin’ country.

The only legal process of watching Netflix’s content on Australian pay TV defies the commercial edge it has over competing television networks in America. House of Cards is Netflix’s flagship series, and is the production company’s second foray into original programming in an online sphere. Netflix combats the obstacles imposed by broadcast television (that subsequently compel viewers to watch pirated material) by distributing all their episodes on their official website. It’s a transition that deserves a lot more research, the foundations of which a few uni mates and I had a chance to look at. In its early stages, online distribution of television is a risky venture and Netflix have to be careful about what new programs they choose to develop.

I'm sorry, but there was no way this image could possibly miss out on featuring here.

I’m sorry, but there was no way this image could possibly miss out on featuring here.

The Life and Death of Media
Reflecting on the first season of House of Cards, it comes with little surprise that Netflix opted to adapt a 1990 BBC miniseries of the same name and embed the story in a completely Internet-driven world. The show’s plot and production design is both inspired by and completely saturated in digital media. First impressions in the pilot are lasting, where stylistic heads-up display text messages are sent between the ‘protagonist’ congressman Frank J. Underwood (who adds to an ever-increasing roster of anti-heroes featuring in modern television) and his political trump card, Zoe Barnes. Time and time again, the various players caught up in politics, journalism and philanthropy, exploit the Internet for their own personal gain. But their ubiquitous use of it suggests that they are simply adjusting to modern times. By association, television viewers should do the same.

In ‘Chapter 3’ of House of Cards, CNN talk show host Soledad O’Brien asks Washington Herald journalist Zoe “should newspapers adapt to the times we live in?” Zoe’s interview on the program sets in motion a series of events that see her fired from the Herald, and pick up a position at online news site Slugline. Ironically, the Slugline building interior depicted in HoC is, in reality, the Baltimore Sun offices where life imitates art:

“Journalism is fading… Newspapers are shutting down. We were filming in the Baltimore Sun’s building, and half of their offices were closed down. It’s very depressing.”
– Constance Zimmer, actress: ‘Janine Skorsky’ in House of Cards

The Washington Herald offices are drab and littered with an overwhelming amount of clutter whereas the Slugline headquarters exhibit a sleek and modern design.


zoezimmer The Washington Herald offices (top) are drab and cluttered with an overwhelming amount of paper whereas the Slugline headquarters (bottom) exhibit a sleek and modern design.

Print media is all but discarded from the narrative, with Zoe’s colleague and former rival, Janine Skorsky, abandoning the Herald for a position at Slugline. At face value, this subplot scrutinises changes to the journalistic landscape. But if the death of traditional journalism is triggered by the advent of its online counterpart, can’t other media sectors experience similar journeys? The proof is in piracy statistics, and the very act of watching House of Cards. Television production is feeling the effects of the Internet just as journalism does.

Amateur voices and a growing need for news-as-it-happens is on the rise. But I resent the idea that “journalism is fading”; it is merely changing form – like every other media industry should in the advent of digital technologies. Moreover, the CNN interview in HoC concludes with O’Brien asking if the Washington Herald’s current online model is “not adapting fast enough”, to which Zoe responds in the affirmative. Simply shifting base to the Internet is not enough to satisfy consumer needs within and beyond the journalism sector:

“… online video venues need to focus on acquiring content that provides consumers with opportunities to learn something new and with the latest news events. Timeliness and accessibility are critical for operators of online video platforms to draw more consumers to their venues. From the perspective of the television industry, it is important for television firms to respond to the changes in consumers’ motives for watching video content. Television has consistently been considered a medium that satisfies ritualistic orientation, such as passing time and habit.”
– Jiyoung Cha and Sylvia Chan-Olmsted, professors in media studies.

Themes of journalism are microcosmic in terms of the House of Cards grand ideology concerning the media industry. The decision of Netflix to gamble on this political thriller seems rooted in a desire to self-reflexively justify their predominately online distribution model.
 
 
Backroom Politics
It’d be pretty exhausting to watch Netflix constantly critique the shifting models of media consumption in the rather explicit fashion outlined above. Outside of its journalism subplot, House of Cards finds subtle methods to comment on the universal effects of the Internet’s emergence.

These days, it’s not uncommon to have a number of Facebook contacts change their display surname to avoid having employers poke around their personal (and potentially embarrassing) lives. We’re regularly encouraged to moderate what we upload to the Internet in that it may be particularly defamatory and damaging to our career prospects. A quick scan of job search sites affirm these ideas. However, during one of my course lectures entirely dedicated to this particular topic, my lecturer assured me that employers won’t mind seeing a few party photos on Facebook (phew) and that, when seeking prospective employees, they will look for “dimensions in their life”. In short, a little bit of character can go a long way.

This seems to be a sentiment Frank Underwood holds to when he calls on troubled congressman Peter Russo to run for governor of Pennsylvania and, in doing so, come clean(ish) about a series of precarious experiences with sex, drugs and alcohol. Russo’s ‘forthrighteousness’ ultimately propogates very well with his constituents. Perhaps they respect the politician’s ability to face his chequered past, or appreciate that he has demonstrated the highest order of honesty that will surely flow on to how he pitches and drafts policies. The public sphere – symbolic of mass communication and the Internet – wins out against a privatised one.

We’ve discussed the abandonment of obsolete technologies within the journalism subplot, but what about obsolete people? Claire Underwood is wildly unsympathetic to more senior, sickly and perceived subordinate members of the public. At the conclusion of ‘Chapter Two’, a hip, young coffee shop attendant intervenes a slow transaction between Claire and an older coffee shop employee who – you guessed it – can’t operate the hi-tech cash register. Claire’s efforts to overhaul staff at her own workplace are validated, but not for long. In the following episode, she runs through a cemetery during her morning exercise regime and encounters a disapproving woman who startles Claire, exclaiming: “What are you doing? You shouldn’t run here, it’s disgraceful! Have you no respect?” Claire subsequently seeks a free-spirited side of herself in reigniting a love affair with photographer Adam Galloway. The artist tries to draw out a creative prowess in Claire that doesn’t exist.

Claire has this twenty dollar note returned to her after she gives it to a homeless man. The origami swan motif taps into Claire's insecurities concerning her free spirit and whether her lifelong actions will create a meaningful legacy.

Claire has this twenty dollar note returned to her after she gives it to a homeless man. The origami swan motif taps into Claire’s insecurities concerning her free spirit and whether her lifelong actions will create a meaningful legacy.

It’s all well and good to be at the top of your game at a strictly pragmatic level, but what if your life’s work holds no true value to yourself or those around you? In a way, Netflix constructs an idealised mirror image of themselves in Claire. Like Claire, Netflix have revised parts of their profession that no longer offer value for money. But a byproduct of these adjustments is a sense of guilt or, at the very least, a nostalgia for a unique lifestyle now lost. Claire’s character arc is a poetic homage to an old world order and is, by extension, Netflix’s way of giving thanks to its broadcast predecessor.
 
 
Yes, Mr. Vice President?
House of Cards has proved a lot in its first season, so where to from here? At a plot level, I imagine HoC will deviate from the narrative stipulated in the BBC miniseries trilogy – as to keep all viewers guessing about which direction the show’s headed in. However, given the ground it’s covered so far, can we expect HoC to drop the emphasis on critiquing the state of television? On the other hand, could unprecedented events impact Netflix’s standing within the distribution landscape and naturally nudge House of Cards to comment on aspects of its own production? To quote a popularised phrase of both the UK and US versions of the series: “I couldn’t possibly comment.”

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