Monday, February 4, 2013

House of Cards (and how it will change television)


The new David Fincher-produced Netflix series, House of Cards, is going to change the landscape of television. Or at least that’s the hope of all those involved. In an unprecedented, balls-out move, Netflix co-founder and CEO, Reed Hastings gave Fincher several million dollars to shoot two seasons back-to-back. The kicker: last Friday, Hastings put all 13 episodes of House of Cards online, available for users at their leisure.

I was one of the maniacs who crushed out the entire first season this weekend. The result of which produced some damn fine television, sure, but also a handful of exciting discussions about my general apathy for television. But more on that later.

Frank Underwood is a man unfazed. As the House Majority Whip, Democratic South Carolina Congressman Underwood is responsible for keeping things moving. He wheels, he deals, and he gets shit done. And because he is played with stoic resolve and utter poise by Kevin Spacey, you can be certain he has done, and will continue to do, just that. Thanks much in part to Underwood’s massive influence, a new, young-ish Democratic President has recently taken office. A President who promised Frank that, once elected, he would give Frank the title of Secretary of State. Early into the series’ first episode, it’s made clear to Underwood that the Secretary of State position is being filled by someone else.
Kevin Spacey as Rep. Frank Underwood
Frank goes home, shares a cigarette with his equally patient and resolute wife, Claire (Robin Wright), and the two plan to bring it all down. Initially, the idea is to ruin the career of the man who assumed Frank’s would-be Secretary of State title. But (and I’m not giving anything away here), once Frank does just that, he Keeps. On. Going. He does favors, gives promotions, destroys lives, all for the sake of… what?

You discover the “what” eventually, but for much of the first season, we’re pleasantly forced to sit in awe of a ruthless, cunning politician as he takes people out for no apparent reason. To help, he blackmails an impressionable rookie Congressman (Corey Stoll), beds a feisty reporter (Kate Mara) in exchange for shared top-secret information, makes the President’s Chief of Staff his enemy, then his friend (then his enemy… then his friend). And plows over several others in the process.

I’ve honestly revealed nothing more here than what you’ll find in the first two episodes, and that’s for damn good reason. Simply put, House of Cards is a masterpiece of the television medium. It stuns, shocks, surprises and, most importantly, treats its audience with respect. Spacey helps immensely with this, and he does it by taking a few huge risks. The first is his decision to go all in. He gives Underwood a steady, barely-there compassion that pops up rarely, but always at the best possible time. No matter what Underwood is doing (and he does quite a lot), Spacey completely owns it. (Another major risk is Underwood’s constant breaking of the fourth wall. Sometimes he looks into the camera and explains to us, the audience, exactly what’s going on. Other times, he just flashes a gentle smirk. Neither is annoying or lazy. Quite the opposite.)
Robin Wright as Claire Underwood
Robin Wright. Let’s talk about Robin Wright. Arguably best known as Forest Gump’s Jenny or as Mrs. Sean Penn, Wright’s flawless work in House of Cards is cause enough for her to finally stand on her own. Wright is an actress I’ve been taken with for quite some time, but nothing prepared me for Claire. Everything I described about Frank – the affair, the extortion, the callousness – Claire knows about it all. Why? Because Frank tells her. His vision includes her, always. No matter who or what gets in the way. Claire not only accepts this, she encourages it. I could sit here and dictate countless other notes of praise for Wright’s work here, but this is it. This is the role. This is the character that people remember you by.

Spacey and Wright are the show’s anchors, but everyone else involved delivers at the top of their games. The supporting cast is universally great (I didn’t even mention Michael Kelly’s Doug Stamper, who, as Underwood’s chief of staff, plays the hidden, cunning politician role to perfection), and the series’ writers and directors all immerse themselves collectively into the show’s overall dark tone. The show, from scene one, episode one, just, simply, works.

A handful of words on my distaste for TV. Now, I am no dedicated viewer of television. Frankly, most of the television I’ve seen in the past five years (or attempted to see) has been, well, crap. Of the shows I’ve been told I’d enjoy (Homeland, The Good Wife, Sherlock, Dexter, and on and on), I feel like too much time has passed to start anew. I keep telling myself I’ll get around to the DVDs someday and marathon them out. But I won’t. (Probably.) My affinity for at-home viewing is mostly held in older, foreign films. And that’s the way it goes.
David Fincher, directing episode two of House of Cards
But that’s just one part of my problem. The other is the waiting. I simply cannot stand waiting a week to watch something I love. I currently watch three shows live: Mad Men, Treme, and Girls. And I’m pissed everytime one of their episodes concludes. If I had to wait thirteen weeks to finish the first season of House of Cards, I’m sure I would’ve lost interest, just as I did with Justified, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, and countless others. Those are three excellent television programs, but I can’t take the waiting. My mind moves onto something else, and I forget that this starts Sunday at 10, or that airs Tuesday at 11.

The counter(s) to my argument is a simple one: get a DVR. Well, I had a DVR for two years and I felt like a worthless piece of shit. I watched stuff I normally wouldn’t care less about (on top of plenty of things I thought I cared deeply about). A love for Intervention turned into an addiction to Hoarders, The First 48, Top Chef, The Celebrity Apprentice – Christ, you name it. All shows perfect for passing the time (a lot… of time), but nothing more. To me, anyway. People watch and love those shows, but the amount of hours I was spending on them was detrimental to my movie-freaked mind.

The other counter to my argument defines House of Cards’ business model: wait for DVD (or online streaming) and watch the shows you want, when you want. House of Cards isn’t the first time I attempted to crush out a season of television in a flash, but it’s certainly the most fun I’ve had doing it since The Wire. The show has an unsettling, confident, and overall captivating tone that makes it insatiable. Not watching them all as quickly as humanly possibly felt like a waste. And the fact that I streamed episodes of House of Cards on my TV, my desktop, my laptop, and my phone only further cements the notion of TV my way, on my time. So, basically, for 13 hours this weekend, House of Cards was able to break down the barriers I had set for television. I didn’t get bored, I didn’t get frustrated – I simply clicked “Next Episode” the moment the option was available.
Kate Mara as journalist Zoe Barnes
We’ll likely not know how successful House of Cards is. Hastings has promised to keep viewing numbers a secret, so only a rise in Netflix’s stock will be evident of House of Cards’ greatness. The company has a few more original shows coming out soon that will practice this exact model, and I truly think that, if they catch on, other networks will play ball as well. Will AMC throw every episode of the final season of Mad Men online at once, for a set fee? Not a chance. But maybe the next AMC show will.

But, for now, we have House of Cards to set the tone. My advice: watch the show, and watch it fast. I have a very difficult time believing you’d regret it. Let me throw it to you another, concluding way: Frank Underwood likes to tell those around him that he’s not a betting man. He relies on fact and certainty. The current cost of a Netflix streaming plan is $7.99 a month. Does House of Cards merit that cost single handedly? Yes, certainly. Season One: A+

55 comments:

  1. I've barely started on House of Cards, but as to your larger point. I don't mind waiting for new episodes. The only thing that can make me lose interest in a show is bad writing.

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    1. Good stuff. Bad writing is a killer. And I think most TV shows (especially sitcoms) really suffer from it over time. But if people keep tuning in... then I guess from a business perspective, it makes sense to keep on truckin'.

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  2. Alex let me ask you a question - have you seen Game of Thrones and Breaking bad? Because comparing to those House of Cards is complete shit.

    I saw first 11 episodes. Spacey was good, supporting actors were good but it was nothing gripping. Mara is kinda saddening me because Rooney's talent is making her look like a little girl with puppets trying to act. None of the characters are well written, I feel like the revolution is simply because it is 'all season right now' deal. I give it 7/10 very weak too. I wish Fincher would focus his talent on something worth while.

    The episode where Spacey and his colleagues are breaking into a library is a complete disaster. Honestly, the first few eps were good but then it turned into cliche, boring town.

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    1. I respect your opinion (as always) but we simply disagree here. I loved Mara, the writing, and the library episode wholeheartedly.

      I'm kind of confused by your Thrones/Breaking Bad comment. Would watching those cheapen House of Cards to me? (I'm not being flip, I genuinely don't know what you mean.) As I mentioned in my essay, Breaking Bad is one of the shows I started live and simply gave up on. Which has nothing to do with the show, but everything to do with my lack of attention and patience toward TV. As for Thrones, several friends I trust say it would be a huge waste of my time. They love it, but they think I'd hate it. The whole fantasy/other world shtick is something my tastes have a difficult time vibing with. Oh well.

      I do think it's important to note that I don't believe you or I have ever agreed on TV. I think GIRLS is currently the tell all end all of television, and we know how you feel about that one.

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    2. I do like The Wire. So this is where we agreed.

      I think if you watched GoT or Breaking Bad you wouldn't be so generous with praise for House of Cards. For me House of Cards isn't worth the praise, not when there are so many superior shows out there that kept high quality for many seasons.

      Oh and btw you asked on twitter if HoC is eligible for Emmys. I read today that it isn't - I have no idea why and it kinda sucks because I think at the very least Corey Stoll should be nominated.

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    3. The Wire!! We'll always have The Wire.

      Okay, I see your point about Thrones and Bad now... kind of a balancing act. And, again, I can't argue there. I'm no TV aficionado. I was tempted to not even give Cards a grade, but ah, what the hell, just my opinion.

      Jesus, these Cards Emmy noms are silly. Everyone says yes, then no, then yes, then no...

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    4. I wish you would watch and enjoy Breaking Bad. Guess there won't be any posts regarding BB then...*Charlie Brown walk*

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    5. I may go back and watch all of Breaking Bad once it's over. But I simply couldn't keep up with it live!

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  3. I've only watched the first two episodes (the Fincher ones) and I'm liking it alot so far. I would have watched more but I kinda got distracted with Community and Dr. Who. Sigh this is why I hate watching multiple tv shows at once.

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    1. Ha, I know exactly what you mean. That's why I'll never own a DVR again. I was juggling like nine shows at once and, in hindsight, they were all complete crap that added nothing to anything. Thankfully, House of Cards is different.

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  4. Is it just me, or is none of the coverage of House of Cards making reference to the original British mini-series it's based on?

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    1. We don't know anything about the original mini-series over here, that's why.

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    2. Yeah, Squasher is right. I knew it was based on a British show, but this version is VERY American. I actually don't ever remember hearing about the British version until the American one was going to be released.

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  5. I totally agree with you on Robin Wright, she is sensational. The other cast members are very strong too. I think this show can definitely be a game-changer, especially if it gets Emmy love.

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    1. I loved how we kind of tag-teamed this series together over the weekend, tweeting each other updates with passing episodes. Wright was a beast! Really hope Emmy gives it some attention.

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  6. YOU GOTTA WATCH SHERLOCK ON DVD THAT IS ALL
    I know what you mean about waiting for shows, it is very frustrating at times, but for me the anticipation is half the fun sometimes! I don't watch a lot of television as it goes to air because I don't often find the time, but I would if I could (although once again, ads are another issue entirely). I will usually marathon something on DVD as well.
    I'm watching a web-series where the current episodes are released on Tuesdays and Fridays here (Mondays and Thursdays in America) - the wait is killing me, but the speculation is also a lot of fun.
    I don't think I can watch House of Cards here, I don't get Netflix in Australia :/ I'll look though, it sounds pretty amazing!

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    1. And Robin Wright is wonderful, but she will always be Buttercup from the Princess Bride to me!

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    2. Ha SEE. There's always something to watch. Commercials are a killer too, no doubt. Whenever I watch something with commercials, I always change the channel, or get up and move onto something else. I just don't have time for them.

      Awww Buttercup. Aaaaas yoooooou wiiiiiish.

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  7. This EXACTLY how i feel about television! I couldnt have said it better myself. I give this review an A+

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    1. Ha thanks man! That was kind of you to say.

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  8. I haven't seen a single episode yet (I'll start in a few weeks when the buzz goes down), but I'm looking forward to this tremendously.

    But I do have to say that I don't think it's going to change the face of television. (If it does, I'll be out of a job!) But seriously, it will give the public more options and that's what makes technology so great. I think a lot of people like "the wait" because the anticipation between episodes (and seasons) are part of the fun. Take BREAKING BAD or LOST, two of my favorite shows in the last 10 years. The pause between episodes had me thinking about what had just transpired for days on end. I talked and speculated endlessly about these shows to whoever would listen. They consumed my mind. Right now, I'm dreading the final season of BREAKING BAD this summer, but dreading in a good way. :-) Its all part of what makes them so special to me. It's actually the true definition of "appointment TV" for me.

    All of this to say that there's just no right or wrong way to watch TV. I don't see the old way going away at all but this new method, as you've proved, can be just as successful.

    Awesome review, as always. You've got me pumped for it.

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    1. Nice man, hope you dig the show when you check it out!

      Your notion of there being no right or wrong way to watch TV is pricelessly what I was driving at. Perfectly put. But man, I really believe that this instant streaming and/or full-season availability is the way of the future. Just like I think more and more movies will be released online as opposed to in theaters, in the ensuing years. There will always be movie theaters for the Avatars, the Avengers, the Star Wars Part 12s, but indie-to-moderate indie flicks will be released online, I think. But hell, who knows, anyway.

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  9. I'm not fond of TV either as I don't watch a lot of shows. On Sundays, it's Girls, Boardwalk Empire, and if I'm in the mood for some camp, True Blood and Californication. Another show I watch (whenever it's on) is South Park and Bunheads.

    That's pretty much it. Other than old TV shows, I'm not really into other stuff.

    This could be interesting as I do like David Fincher. I don't know if I'll be on board but I will give it a chance. I have been thinking about starting another blog just for TV shows as I do plan on profiling David Lynch very soon ala 2015 but I need to see Twin Peaks before I can do a proper piece on Lynch.

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    1. Interesting that you said, In the mood for camp, because that's pretty much exactly what I use TV for. A device to occupy 10 minutes here, a Saturday morning hangover there... I just don't have much room for it.

      Twin Peaks is perfectly Lynch. If you like Lynch, you'll like that show. Hope you enjoy!

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  10. Okay I'm not going to read the review till I watch the series, but dude you HAVE to watch Sherlock! It's 6 episodes only so far, and I promise you, you won't lose interest. I will comment back on this post after I have watched House of Cards.

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    1. Ha, the ladies really dig that show, huh? So it only runs for 3-episode seasons? That's odd, isn't it? They are 90 minutes, so maybe that makes sense...

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  11. Another girl here asking you to see Sherlock- GET ON IT!
    In other news, I will soon start to watch House of Cards and I think I will like it. Robin Wright is a favorite of mine, glad she got the spotlight here. Great post!

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    1. haha Jesus. Oh god, if you like Wright at all, then you'll love this show. She is perfect. Really.

      Thanks for reading!

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  12. House of Cards commercials are all over theaters, tv channels, billboards... I guess it's huge, uh? Just knowing Spacey's in it is enough for me, but I had no idea Fincher was producing!

    Oh and everyone's right, Sherlock is great. It's like watching mini mystery movies, and there's only like 6 episodes, so there's plenty of time to catch up. It's a nice twist on the classic Sherlock Holmes... and that british sense of humour kills me!

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    1. Hastings definitely went all out here - spent a lot producing it and probably even more marketing it. Shit is crazy hyped.

      Seriously, you ladies and Sherlock. Not one guy has ever recommended that show to me. Which is perfectly fine, I'm just getting a kick out of it.

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  13. I don't mean to jump on the Sherlock bandwagon, but you really should check out Sherlock. It's awesome.

    Now you've given me very high expectations for House of Cards. I've been meaning to check it out. But I'm a little afraid, because like Sati pointed out, I watch Game of Thrones and Breaking bad too, so I know what great TV looks like. (Great TV to me anyways) But I do love Kate Mara, I wish she got as much attention as her sister does.

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    1. No, jump on it, please! All this enthusiasm is making me really excited to watch it.

      Me reviewing TV is far different than me reviewing film. But at the end of the day, I know what I like, and I know what I don't like. I know what I consider time well spent, and what I consider a waste of time. House of Cards was, for me, time well spent. So I highly recommend it. Mara is amazing in it. The best work I've seen her do since Transsiberian.

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  14. Excellent post! Will start this soon, probably in the next day or two. I've also got The Wire season 1 on hand, so I need to get going on that as well.

    By the way, I saw A Woman Under the Influence and Husbands. Dig both, but I prefer Woman too. Should see Opening Night later this week, and I've got Faces and Shadows lined up soon.

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    1. Thanks! I hope you dig House of Cards, I obviously loved it. The Wire is like crack. It takes a while to get into, but then you realize it's 3 in the morning and you can't bring yourself to stop.

      I agree that Woman is the better film, but I also think it's Cassavetes' best film. Still, he made some great stuff.

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    2. Ok, I'm 7 episodes in, and I LOVE it! I'm guessing it won't be eligible for the Emmys? If so, it's a shame.

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  15. Dude, Robin Wright is The Princess Bride. Those other things are afterthoughts. :p

    I haven't checked out House of Cards yet, but do intend to. I much prefer marathoning shows than watching week to week, at least these days, so I'm hoping Netflix's distribution model works for them and they keep at it. I used to watch a LOT of week-to-week TV, but I just go burned out on it, and now my husband and I pick a show or two at a time on Netflix and just mainline them. It's actually not the week-to-week part that bugs me the last few years, it's the hiatuses. We watched Parks & Rec week to week at the beginning of this season (after watching the previous seasons on Netflix), but then they went on hiatus sometime before the holidays, and I have no idea if it's back, or when it came back, or what's going on, and we've largely lost interest anyway. We'll just wait until it's on Netflix and then catch up again. Same exact thing happened with Fringe a couple of years ago.

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    1. I couldn't agree more! But do you find that many younger people have no idea what The Princess Bride is? Breaks my heart everytime.

      Sounds like we're pretty much exactly the same. I don't make time for week-to-week TV, but if I can settle on a show, then I'll definitely marathon it out.

      Holy shit, the hiatus. I can't believe I forgot to mention that. That's one of the main reasons I quit network TV. They go off, come on, go off, come on. Makes no sense. Stupid.

      Thanks for your insightful comment!

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    2. Parks and Rec has been back on for the past few weeks. I know the hiatus can be annoying but in the days of facebook and twitter it's become extremely easy to follow all of your show's schedules.

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    3. Anonymous - I'd have to care enough to do that. As it is, if I log onto HuluPlus a couple of weeks in a row and there's no new Parks & Rec, I quit bothering and just wait until the rest of the season is on Netflix. It's hard for me to keep up interest in a show over longer than two or three weeks, even when I love the show. I get distracted by the myriad things I can watch right now.

      Alex - Do the younger generation really not know The Princess Bride? I guess I've never asked any of them... I just assumed. I mean. The Princess Bride. My daughter will certainly grow up knowing what it is, that's for dang sure! :)

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    4. Yeah I have to agree with Jandy here. That's part of the problem with me, I lose interest/forget, and don't even think to use social media to find out. I remember when I used to be into 30 Rock, I swear they would do four episodes, then take a break for two weeks. Three episodes, break for four weeks. On and on. I tried to find a legit schedule on NBC and Facebook, and I couldn't find anything, so I stopped watching. It was college so... I guess I had more important stuff to do on Thursday nights. Ha.

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  16. Yeah, I finished the first season in about two days. The show will certainly have a huge affect on how we consume television/how filmmakers release their television.

    Netflix struck gold.

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    1. Hell yeah they did man. Show is addicting as shit. Really hope other networks follow suit and release everything at once.

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  17. I think you are on to something with the internet and the way we are going to view future TV shows, btw I'm three episodes in HoC love the acting and style, not so much the breaking the forth wall stuff though. I too feel that there is, as of yet, untapped market for internet-based shows, See I myself am trying to write a series based on the less known darker aspects of College and Academic life, a sort of 'College Confidential' if you will. The great thing is you're not burdened by commercial breaks, an hour or half-hour time slot to fill or TV censorship. Each episode can be whatever length you write it to be to get the story across, you don't need to pad it out or leave things on the cutting room floor. So I feel this may be the future for a different type of shows, just not all of them.

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    1. Internet, man, way of the future. I really, truly think that. I was just talking about this last night with some friends... will I watch the final season of Mad Men (for free, through my cable provider)? Of course I will. Would I pay $10 to watch all of the episodes at once on iTunes? Of course I would. An untapped market indeed.

      Your web series sounds fantastic. I love exploring the darker side of adolescence. I feel like that demographic is reserved for absurdist humor, but really... you can craft some dark shit there. Really hope you get that made!

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    2. Thanks for your words of encouragement, yeah I really think a great dramatic college series has yet to be done, in any medium. Most shows concentrate on before college in the teens or afterwards in the early twenties. Since leaving College I have gradually come to appreciate the real actual scope of higher-learning. It puts to together teenagers, the vast majority have never been away from home and parents, from different backgrounds, ethnicities and social statuses and gets them all on an even playing field in one place... at least professors and facilities-wise. However, It's not only the student-body, you have the professors, balancing teaching and their academic careers, and the administration that has to put a face of socially 'progressive' but also 'traditional' education values to the tuition check signers. It's shocking that there hasn't been something substantial that really takes an unblinking look into what is now one of the most important institutions in the nation and really the world.

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    3. I agree, it kind of is shocking. I'd love to see someone tackle that subject openly and honestly. There could a hit in there.

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  18. Major props to Netflix for pulling this off. I had some reservations about this show, but I should have never doubted Fincher/Spacey. I'm only four episodes into it, but I am loving the hell out of it so far. Curious to hear how profitable this is going to be for Netflix. Seems like the way of the future though.

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    1. Damn man, sorry I completely missed this comment. Glad to hear you dug the show. Apparently Netflix's stock took off after this show. It's working!

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  19. The best part of this for me is that the metro was actually filmed at the metro HAHA. Otherwise, I haven't read this yet, but will read it later on (I mostly came here to see if you reviewed it before asking you too)but I found the lead characters a bit too unlikeable/manipulative to pull of what he did. I guess this is just a personal bias, but I just can't imagine anyone on the hill being so obviously ruthless & actually making it unless they are really, really old cotton money.

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    1. I've seen Spacey interviewed about his role here, and he admits upfront that it is a hyperbolic recreation of Washington at its worst. I don't think House/Senate members are going around killing people either, but it sure makes for good television.

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    2. Yea, I forgot that he killed people ha. I mean just, the puffed up chest, & attitude I will destroy you or in real life I'll destroy your career if you don't do a, b, & c. There are some people out there like that, but not so high up at the top in the limelight. Mostly senior advisers/high up there behind the scene staffers. That would have been more believable. When I saw the previews for this I honestly imagined he was a chief of staff. Maybe that is where my bias comes from. I should watch his interviews, I admire him so much. Seems like he was made for a role such as this. I believe everything about this show can only get better.

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  20. Wait, I think I read this. Well I agree with you about what you said about having to wait & then becoming addicted to shows that are a waste of time. This is why I haven't started a new show this summer until last week.

    & I loved Kevin Spacey in this role & particularly loved Robin Wright. I think some of the writing was a little patronizing for me, but again, that is a real personal bias. I think they loved to include some cliches about a southern republicans sexuality, & throwing in certain things because they knew it would appeal to a certain thinking audience, some of the darkness/edginess seemed really contrived because of this. BUT the thing is, this is the first season & I can only hope it will get better b/c I'm not going to start watching. I just believe much of the praise it has received was because of doing this daring thing with netflix, which I can't hate the player for that honestly. Very smart, I love the idea, & I'm sorry to say because there are many shows/some channels I like/respect but I look forward to tv's demise. If it breaks up the hold of less than 400 people controlling 90% of media I'm all for it!

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    1. I think the very model of the show (releasing them all online at once) definitely helped hyped the show itself. But it really lived up to the expectations. Wright was a BEAST. I love when women are written smartly and with power.

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  21. http://owni.eu/2011/11/25/infographic-media-consolidation-the-illusion-of-choice/

    This is what I was referring to. The 400 people comment was wrong it is actually 232. So YES. I welcome netflix to the mix with open arms.

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