When the Netflix show, House of Cards, was nominated for an Emmy Award for Best Drama, it was great news for writers everywhere. The Great Recession of 2008 diminished even further the already limited openings there are for screenwriters. Because of the tendency to think of features as the gold ring, many people missed the real story: opportunities for writers are actually growing at a rapid pace.
These opportunities are in television, the internet and graphic novels. In terms of quality, television left movies behind over a decade ago. With the rise of basic cable and pay cable original programming, television has also been the source of more jobs for writers. AMC’s success with Mad Men, followed by Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, showed other cable channels that they could compete with the networks. New shows, and jobs for writers, were born.
Until recently the internet has been loaded with potential, but with little actual to show for itself. In theory, the internet should be the gold rush for writers. The barriers to entry, which are so high in traditional film and television, almost disappear with the internet. But while the internet permits almost anyone to tell their story – and on YouTube almost everyone has – there has been no filter for quality. So, ironically, the sheer numbers of postings become a barrier to talented writers, because no one can get their voice heard above the din of internet Babel.
Enter House of Cards. The medium is television, but the distribution system is the internet. Just as AMC did with basic cable, Netflix’s critical success with House of Cards opens the gates for other big internet players like Amazon and Hulu. And that’s wonderful news for writers who have mastered the skills of story necessary to entertain audiences on tablets and cell phones where the internet travels.
To see how the story of House of Cards works, and why it was such a good choice for Netflix’s first big original drama, we have to begin by looking at the story challenges the writers faced. This show, based on an English show and novel, centers on the Democratic majority whip in the US House of Representatives. So clearly, this is very inside politics. Automatically that gives you a rarified audience, and you lose more people the more detailed and wonky you become.
A second story challenge comes from the genre. This is not a political thriller, with a lone individual investigating a vast state conspiracy. Political thrillers are quite successful in novels where the writer has hundreds of pages to get into the intricacies of the plot, but not in film.
House of Cards is from a related genre, the political crime story (Seven Days in May and Advise and Consent) where the lead characters are often criminals at the highest levels of government. While this form is rare now, it was the primary form of high drama in Shakespeare’s day, with Macbeth, Julius Caesar and King Lear prime examples. Notice this is the story of the rise and fall of kings. We don’t see this much now because we live in a democracy of the everyman, with a hero who’s just like you and me.
But this choice of world and genre has tremendous story benefits if the writers are able adapt it to present day reality. First off, rise and fall has a clean structural line, which the audience can clearly recognize. This will be very helpful when the writers want to track a number of complex subplots without fearing that the audience will lose the main narrative spine.
A second benefit is that the stakes are very high. This is epic political crime, with the future of the entire country at stake. High stakes offset the political minutiae and keep the audience glued all the way to the end to find out the outcome.
Finally, because the struggle for power is one of the prime human motivations, this form has massive story possibilities. Plot is essentially the choreography of attack and counter-attack between hero and all opponents. So a struggle at the highest levels of power in the richest, most powerful democracy in the world has almost infinite possibilities of ebb and flow. In a medium like television that eats plot, this is huge.
In my TV Drama class, I talk about the desire line as the unit of measure of any show. What are the heroes’ goals in each episode and what are they over the length of the season? The desire line gives you the spine of the show, and all other structure steps come off of that.
In traditional TV drama, with what is known as a “stand-alone” episode, the hero, who is typically a cop, lawyer or doctor, has a single desire that is accomplished at the end of the episode. While these shows are popular with a mass audience, they are not critical favorites and they don’t engender binge viewing.
The most highly praised cable dramas use the serial form, in which multiple characters have desires that extend over many episodes or an entire season. While these shows are not as popular with audiences, they get the best reviews and have passionate bingeing fans who can give a new show heat, especially on the internet.
House of Cards is primarily a serial, but it wisely uses some stand-alone elements. The show has a large web of characters whose desires extend over the full first season. But it also has a single main character, Frank Underwood, whose clear goal – to take revenge and become President – defines the show. Unlike cop, lawyer or doctor shows, the nature of this desire is different as well. This show is about gaining power, which means that House of Cards is really a modern, democratic Game of Thrones.
A desire that’s all about gaining power changes how the stories of the individual episodes work, as well as how the stories sequence together over the season. One of the main ways the top TV dramas structure their episodes and seasons is to sequence the difficult moral challenges the heroes face. We see this on Breaking Bad, The Good Wife and The Walking Dead. But House of Cards, like Game of Thrones, is not about morality. It’s about winning the game.
This unique desire line, about gaining ultimate power, has another story benefit. The hero, and the show itself, must inevitably have a large, very complex plan, which makes for lots of plot. This is crucial for the success of a serial show.
The plan step of the story is heightened further by the fact that the hero is a master strategist. One of the poorly understood connections between character and plot is that much of plot is determined by the hero’s ability to plot. The Machiavellian Frank is capable of intricate deceptions whose true nature he hides not only from the opposition but also from the audience. This in turn increases the number and quality of reveals.
The hero’s superb plotting ability also brings up one of the few serious weaknesses of the show so far. Plot comes not just from the hero’s ability to plot, but from the opponents’ as well. A show this dependent on strategy and winning requires an opposition that is equal to the hero. We’re looking for a heavyweight fight of the mind here. In effect, Moriarty (as hero) vs. Sherlock Holmes. A fight between true equals. Otherwise the fight is over in the first round.
Unfortunately, in House of Cards, the opposition is not up to the task. In fact, two of Frank’s major opponents, the labor boss and Congressman Russo, are downright stupid. In a show like this about a master strategist, the writers can get away with a dumb opposition for a few episodes. But as the season progresses, and the hero easily wins one fight after another, this flaw can become fatal.
Another major feature House of Cards shares with the other critically acclaimed serials is its use of the much-discussed anti-hero. From Tony Soprano all the way through Don Draper, Walter White and Nucky Thompson, the top serials have extremely unlikable heroes, in the conventional sense of that term. Frank Underwood is definitely in that mold.
But it’s important to look more deeply at these character creations. While they may be unlikable, they are also complex, which makes them far more intriguing. Now, the word “complex” is often thrown around easily in writing circles, and no one bothers to define, structurally, what it really means. Primarily it means that these characters have moral contradictions. And that means they each have a highly compartmentalized moral code.
One of the marks of the gangster genre – itself a sub-form of crime – is that the characters have the most extreme moral contradictions in any story form. On the one hand they love their families, especially mom. On the other hand they kill people who insult them or get in their way. And they see no contradiction there.
In many ways, Frank is an elected gangster at the very top of the American political system. He and his allies will be good to someone one moment and destroy them the next. It’s all about power and winning, and right action is just another card to play in the game.
I do want to mention here the best character on the show, Frank’s wife, Claire, played brilliantly by Robin Wright. She’s been called a modern Lady Macbeth, but she is more morally nuanced than that. She is her husband’s staunchest ally, but the best beats of the first season occur when she briefly becomes his enemy. The two of them also have the most unique marriage I’ve ever seen on television.
There is one more weakness I see in the show, although I admit I may be alone in my criticism here. With the emphasis of this show moving from moral challenge to gamesmanship, the bar is higher on House of Cards for political authenticity and ingenious strategy. In this, I believe the show has had mixed results. On the one hand there are lots of great inside political details, like Frank’s tricky argument that holding the governorship of Pennsylvania is key to preventing the House of Representatives from falling to the Republicans.
But there are more than a few political absurdities as well. For example, an early part of Frank’s plan involves going up against the education union. The education union just happens to be the most influential and important union in the Democratic Party. For a Democrat to challenge them on anything, much less on a major education bill, is the height of stupidity. So is running a crack addict for governor, even though Frank’s doing it because he wants the guy to fail. His candidate doesn’t make just one mistake, he makes a slew of them. In reality, the man would be out of politics after his first big blunder.
For a political junkie like me, these moments stick out like a finger in the eye. It’s like those sports movies where the beginner starts training with the sensei and a 30 second montage later he’s one of the best in the country. In story, if you make a feature of authenticity, you better make sure it’s totally authentic.
But this is a relative quibble. House of Cards deserves to be in the rarified company with the other Emmy nominees for Best Drama. By studying the structure of this show closely, we writers can see one way of successfully creating a TV drama that plays on the internet. Just the fact that House of Cards was nominated is one of the biggest wins writers have had in a long time.