The grim legacy of House of Cards

House of Cards (HoC) debuted on Netflix 10 years ago this month. No one wants to admit it now, but the show was a genuine cultural phenomenon—a real “where were you when” moment for elder millennials, who spent an entire February 2013 weekend binging this awful show on their lo-res overheating laptops and composite cable-connected Nintendo Wiis. Frank Underwood! In blurry 480i with lots of compression artifacts from being sent over a choppy network!

Powering through

Unfortunately, in a rare case of “disruption” actually working, this top-to-bottom ode to tackiness—tackiness in both content and form!—was a hinge point in TV history. There’s before HoC, and after HoC.

Its binge-bound consumption was a new ritual divorced from the appointment viewing of the lienar TV world. A Facebook friend at the time said he’d “powered through” all its episodes, a verb that captures an essential part of viewing HoC because it implies a sort of involved pain, an in-the-moment awareness of the badness of both the content 1 and the experience of consuming it. Never again would any “content provider” consider itself cutting-edge unless it could dump a mediocre-at-best 10+ hour original movie (spread across 8-10 episodes) on its audience in one big batch, with no regard for whether doing so made any practical or economical sense, but safe in the knowledge that they’d watch the entire thing out of fear that their friends would finish it before them.

HoC and this masochistic ritualistic act of “powering through” shows now loom over almost every major streaming series made since 2013. The typical streaming show, whether His Dark Materials or WandaVision, has some or all of the following characteristics:

* Badly paced: Nothing happens for episodes at a time 2, and then everything happens. It’s exhausting, often leaving you desperate to find something more immediate during the early episodes, or feeling like the ending was rushed even though the show runners had the run time equivalent of 4+ feature-length films to get there. The great unknown of whether a show will even get renewed after one season in the world of mass Netflix cancellations is surely somewhat at fault here. Showrunners may realize that they have less time than they imagined to tie up every loose end. Cliffhangers get overdeployed.
* Doesn’t make money: Almost by definition, these shows can’t be bought a la carte 3; they’re rolled into an all-you-can-day subscription. Many people subscribed long ago for something else and now get the New Big Show as a bonus. Given the levels of saturation for services like Netflix, it’s questionable if any hit show even drives lots of new money-making signups. But you know what does make money? Running movies, such as current Netflix exclusive Glass Onion, in theaters. But that’s passé, so we get unsustainble fare that’ll almost definitely get canceled, delisted, or both.
* Can’t stand alone: “Spoiler” culture, already irritating, has become unbearable now that every streaming series is such a huge time investment that must be consumed carefully and sequentially and then likely never again. So there’s so much pressure for the “investment” of your time to “pay dividends” in the form of a gratifying and likely shocking ending that you discover before your friends. Puzzle-box tendencies dominate; every show becomes Dallas season 9. Nothing can stand apart from this arc of paradoxically predictable unpredictability. Only the truly exceptional shows, such as Mr. Robot (which notably was native to cable TV), can resist the “gotchas“ that flow from being beholden to both spoiler and streaming cultures.
* Impermanent: To bring things full-circle, the constant threat of cancellation plus the death-and-taxes of paying residuals to actors means that no show is truly safe from being yanked off a streaming platform. HoC is still safe (alas), but even Netflix originals such as Arrested Development have been pulled down, to say nothing of the numerous “library” titles from other intellectual property holders that get shuffled around from platform to platform. 4

Powering on

Only now, a decade later, are companies even thinking of rolling back Netflix’s influence. Theaters are good again! Licensing deals are back! And anecdotally, it seems like more people are getting back into physical media—powering on their optical disc players, in tandem with their newly active turntables.

The sales of DVDs and Blu-ray Discs have been dropping for years. However, they’ve moved in time from mass-market items to upmarket boutique ones, as embodied in fancy steelbook editions and lavish Criterion Collection releases, and really in the entire “4K Ultra HD” format writ large. They can’t compete with streaming for scale, but they offer some hope to people more concerned about aesthetics and preservation. There’s an important market and niche for them.

Optical discs are perfect for:

  • Shows and movies 5 that you want to rewatch in small batches, rather than binge in one sitting (the ritual of getting up to switch discs kidna encumbers that). Anthology series such as The Twilight Zone and ones with great standalone episodes such as Rocko’s Modern Life are ideal here.
  • Rare, unusual, or contorversial items that streamers won’t bother to put on their service, ranging from the works of Marlon Riggs to the deleted episodes of 30 Rock.
  • Anything with an assertive aesthetic vision, such as The Red Shoes or Chungking Express, that would be compromised by the visual degrdation that happens with streaming encoding and compression, as well as any film that can be presented in a good native 4K print on disc.

Regarding the latter category, this 2016 Vox article still has it right on the benefits of powering on your disc player even in the world of streaming:

Netflix has been broadcasting some content in 4K since 2014, and Amazon now offers some 4K content too. In theory, these streaming services offer picture quality that is comparable to Ultra HD video discs, the latest in digital video disc technology, and substantially better than a traditional 1080p Blu-ray disc. But when the A/V enthusiasts at WhatHiFi.com compared the three formats earlier this year, they found that the 4K streaming experience was actually more in line with watching a traditional 1080p Blu-ray — and that Blu-rays had a clear advantage in terms of contrast and color. Ultra HD discs, meanwhile, looked far better than either.

Embrace quality and freedom, and reject binge-watching for its own sake. Ten years after HoC altered the course of TV, I think it’s worth recognizing that streaming puts such significant constraints on how shows look and feel, and that we don’t have to live with them.

  1. I have strong feelings about this word. Netflix is one of the proprietary containers that has to be constantly filled up with new interchangeable stuff (“content”) that’s algorithmically served, seen as eminently disposable, and distances itself from any traceable link to its human creator(s). 
  2. We’re not talking about Wong Kar-Wai plotlessness here. There’s no distinctive original aesthetic, and even if there were, the low bit rate encoding would muddy it. 
  3. “Almost,” because some individual Disney+ titles, such as early-release movies, can be bought for a fee. 
  4. “The Office” is the quintessential example here. 
  5. No, I won’t call them “content.” 

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