First of an occasional feature about online series
What's good on television tonight isn't necessarily on TV.
"House of Cards," a 13-episode political thriller starring Kevin Spacey as a congressman with skills in duplicity to match his great ambition, launched its first season today on Netflix.
Yep, Netflix, the company that changed the way America rented DVDs, by mail. But Netflix has grown well beyond that early business model: by some estimates, its online services account for almost one-third of content streaming after dinnertime in the United States.
"House of Cards" represents the first of several original series Netflix will offer this year for devices such as your desk or laptop computers, smartphones and set boxes from companies such as Roku and Apple.
In April comes "Hemlock Grove," a modern-day gothic horror series set in Western Pennsylvania from Eli Roth and Pittsburgh native Brian McGreevy -- who wrote the novel, the screen adaptation and is an executive producer.
May brings Netflix's highest-profile series, resurrecting the beloved cult classic "Arrested Development" for a new season. Another original is "Orange Is the New Black," about a sophisticated woman's year in federal prison; it's developed by Jenji Kohan, who created "Weeds" for Showtime.
This carefully built "House of Cards" was put together by independent film and television studio Media Rights Capital, which produced and financed the series.
For about $8 a month, subscribers can watch myriad TV shows and films from an extensive catalog. But the debut of "House of Cards" represents more than a mere first step at network quality shows developed for streaming.
With an eye toward the growing trend of "binge" watching, Netflix is making all 13 "House of Cards" episodes available in one special delivery. Netflix founder Reed Hastings, profiled in the latest issue of GQ magazine, called the traditional one-episode-each-week model "managed dissatisfaction."
"You're supposed to wait for your show that comes on Wednesday at 8 p.m., wait for the new season, see all the ads everywhere for the new season, talk to your friends at the office about how excited you are," Mr. Hastings said.
Netflix is making "House of Cards" available in dozens of countries, giving it a strong worldwide reach.
There can be strong enticements for creative types who might otherwise eschew the small screen. The first two hours of "House of Cards" is directed by David Fincher, who directed "The Social Network," and he will be involved in the reported $100 million, two-season project.
"The idea that they wouldn't just pull the plug midway was totally thrilling. It's similar to a pay cable model but even more liberating," said Ms. Kohan. "This is the future," she told GQ.
"House of Cards" screenwriter Beau Willimon, one of the writers for the George Clooney political thriller "The Ides of March," called Netflix's commitment "extraordinary," in that a second season is already guaranteed. Viewers, he said, "have become accustomed to watching things when they want to watch them, how they want to watch them, on what device they want to watch them on, and Netflix is smart enough to acknowledge that and to exploit it.
"And so, we're proud to be the first to deliver a show in that way. We certainly won't be the last."
Sony Pictures owns Crackle, which is making its own forays into original programming. Actor Milo Ventimiglia produces and stars in the current thriller, "Chosen," available in six episodes online.
"You know, I think there's this idea that digital is, like, small and kind of guerrilla and we're all running around. But you know, this was a good-sized production with a great, talented crew," Mr. Ventimiglia said.
And questions arise that cannot be answered until more people regularly stream such series. The concept of "second screening" is a growing trend, where viewers watch television content and comment, live, via social media. Would this be blown out of the water if everyone is watching at different times?
Consider the future of binge viewing. Co-star Robin Wright said the cast viewed Season 1 of "House of Cards" as a 13-hour movie: "If you choose to watch 13 in succession, you're able to experience the arc as you would in a two-hour plus movie. And I think you can actually invest and delve into the characters on a deeper level."
"I would just have to say that anyone who is willing to watch 13 hours of me over a weekend, boy, that's [awesome]," Mr. Spacey added.
But traditional viewing habits have trained us to watch episodic TV in small doses.
For example, after Sunday night episodes of AMC's "Breaking Bad" or Showtime's "Homeland," there might be any number of online recaps the next day, not to mention watercooler talk at the office.
Thanks to the now-familiar basic and pay cable model of replaying those episodes through the next seven days, viewers can catch up if they missed the debut.
But on Sunday, another new episode. Watch, comment, repeat. If there is no viewing structure to these new online series, will people watch over the course of a day or two and then move on to the new series? The lack of sustained buzz from media and viewers could cripple a new show.
And what's to stop Netflix viewers from signing up to watch one or two of the new series, then canceling subscriptions as soon as they're finished? Online ads for "House of Cards" promise the entire series' availability today, as well as one month of a free trial subscription. So in essence, Netflix is giving away the program.
"House of Cards" is available in all of Netflix's territories, including the United States, Canada, Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Latin America.
New, and perhaps improved
It's a brave new world with online series. At the moment, Netflix's commitment to the original series promises nice production budgets and minimal network involvement. With ratings removed from the financial picture, it's presumed such content will be given more time to find an audience and grow.
As Ted Sarandos, Netflix chief content officer, told CNN, "I'm not going to give David Fincher notes."
"We just told a great story. That was our only aim. And it can be experienced in drips and drops or all at once," said Mr. Willimon, the screenwriter who, like Mr. Spacey, is one of the show's executive producers.
"House of Cards" is, technically, Netflix's second original series. Last year it debuted "Lilyhammer," a fish-out-of-water show about a former mobster hiding out in Norway. But that was co-produced with another company and was available outside of Netflix.
With "House of Cards," Netflix makes a strong bolt from the gate. Based on the superb 1990 BBC series of the same name that starred Ian Richardson, this new take features Mr. Spacey as a South Carolina congressman.
On the face of it, his Francis Underwood is a Southern gentleman who is quick with a smile and a handshake. But the newly elected president of the United States takes office and denies "Frank" the job he was promised: secretary of state.
He's told he's just too valuable as a member of Congress. Frank is livid, but he hides it well. More important, he has a plan.
Frank tells a colleague that the only way to devour a whale is "one bite at a time." As in the BBC series, it's downright delicious, witnessing his subtle mastery of people and events, all the while nudging them to do what's necessary to achieve his goals.
Robin Wright plays his wife, Claire. Described by Ms. Wright as "Lady Macbeth," Claire has an agenda of her own. Listening to Frank rant about the buffoonery of others, she reminds him, "My husband doesn't apologize, even to me."
It's a match made in shark heaven.
Mr. Spacey, who played "Richard III" on stage last year, compared Frank to Shakespeare's creation. Like Richard, and Mr. Richardson in the British version of "House of Cards," Frank occasionally breaks the fourth wall to address his audience directly. In the first two episodes, it's an effective device because it's not overused.
Making him the representative from South Carolina allows him to play with the underpinnings of an accent, although he takes care not to echo that television icon of genteel duplicity, J.R. Ewing. Ms. Wright is an icy beauty willing to stand by her man to benefit them both. Kate Mara plays a hungry young journalist who sees Frank as her entrée into political blogging.
Frank quietly points out she might be in over her head. As they meet in an art gallery, he contemplates a painting and notes, "We're in the same boat now, Zoe, take care not to tip it over. I can only save one of us from drowning."
Mr. Willimon said that although it's set in Washington, D.C., "House of Cards" isn't really about politics. "It's about power, and power transcends politics. It's something that we all experience and we're all subject to and we all exhibit in our daily lives."
Politics, as in real life, has to consider the will of the people. Can the new model of online series bring about the end of "Must-see TV" on TV? It would appear absurd, for now, to consider the possibility. But just a few years ago, the idea of selling TV and movies through downloads and streaming services was a risky one, too.
Viewers will just have to stay tuned.
Maria Sciullo: email@example.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.