How David Fincher Changed TV Forever With House of Cards

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In anticipation of the release of ‘Mank’ on December 4, this week Collider will be presenting original essays and features diving into the work of David Fincher.

There’s a lot we forget about House of Cards, one of the most seismic series to premiere in the 21st century. It wasn’t the first TV show made exclusively for a streaming service. It wasn’t even technically the first Netflix original series. But it was the first to rack up Emmy nominations. The first to make it clear that digital content could compete on a creative level with what was happening on broadcast and cable television. House of Cards changed the game, and David Fincher was a massive part of that — and not just because it was his first foray into directing for television.

In fact, the credibility Fincher brought to House of Cards is perhaps why we don’t struggle to define it as a television show, even though it would never air on cable or broadcast channels. This is because sometimes 2013 doesn’t feel that long ago, except when you’re talking about digital content. When House of Cards Season 1 launched on February 1, 2013, the concept of streaming video had been around for a few years (Netflix’s instant streaming service launched in 2007). But while on other platforms like YouTube and Vimeo, plenty of original web series of varying levels of budget and quality had been proving the potential for online engagement, there were serious questions from within the TV industry about how adding original series would change Netflix’s place within the TV ecosystem. As critic and journalist Maureen Ryan wrote in March 2011, when House of Cards was first announced:

Netflix going from content-delivery system to a content-creation company raises a lot of questions in my mind, but the primary one is this: Won’t this lead to a lot of studios taking their shows and movies off Netflix at some point? I can’t imagine they’re too happy about facing competition from a company they’d essentially viewed as a pipeline into people’s homes.

Hulu technically beat Netflix to launching an original series on its established streaming platform, and Amazon was right on Netflix’s heels with its own originals. But if you’ve never heard of or don’t remember Battleground, Alpha House, or Betas, don’t beat yourself up — none of those series managed to make an impact beyond their original premieres. Why? Not because they lacked big stars, but because they lacked proven creators, people viewers trusted to make good stuff.

What stands out about the first Netflix originals to have rolled out, all those years ago, is that while they were wildly different shows in many respects, they shared a few important commonalities. Specifically, they were targeted to an adult audience, and there was a Big Name behind the scenes, one with a clear brand identity that communicated better than any trailer or tagline just what you might expect from the show. Horror fans knew that Eli Roth would bring guts and glory to Hemlock Grove. Arrested Development Season 4, while technically a continuation of the Fox broadcast comedy, wore its verifiibles on its sleeve thanks to Mitch Hurwitz. And while Orange Is the New Black lacked movie stars on screen, plenty of TV viewers were plenty familiar with Weeds, the previous series created by Jenji Kohan.

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Image via Netflix

(In fact, anecdotally, when Orange premiered in the summer of 2013 I spent a lot of time talking it up as one of the best new shows of the year, and plenty of people responded by noting that they had really liked the early seasons of Weeds.)

And in the case of House of Cards, Fincher’s involvement signaled that the tale of scheming politician Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) would be one with depth, intelligence, and darkness. In television, directors are not considered the primary auteurs, but the impact of Fincher’s name recognition cannot be underestimated. At the time Netflix was launching its original series, even casual viewers were learning to acknowledge that TV shows didn’t just appear out of thin air, that there were creators at work behind the scenes. House of Cards lost the Emmy for outstanding drama series to Breaking Bad, competing alongside Mad Men and Game of Thrones.

Of course, David Fincher wasn’t the primary architect of House of Cards as a show — Beau Willimon, then a respected playwright with no prior TV experience, was the showrunner who adapted the original British miniseries into what became a six-season political drama, dense with twists and sexual misadventures. But as director of the first two episodes, coming off his second Oscar nomination for The Social Network, viewers knew that Fincher’s at times painfully methodical approach to detail, in the context of his first ever TV job, would pay off in something totally unique.

Rewatching those two episodes isn’t very fun, to be sure, given how they star an accused sexual offender. But Fincher’s steady hand can be be felt in the obsessive attention to detail when it comes to the lush lighting, the measured performances, the very 20-something-esque apartment of ambitious Zoey Barnes (Kate Mara). Most importantly, he did what all great TV directors eventually learn to do: create a clear template for the directors who would follow him. In fact, when you binge, the only real way to know that James Foley has taken the reigns in Episode 3 is to watch the credits. It’s all very much of a piece.

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Image via Netflix

The ultimate legacy of House of Cards is not, in the end, one of triumph, thanks to a creative decline as well as the ignominious exit of Spacey. But it remains forever embedded in the history of Netflix, something even Netflix still acknowledges in subtle ways: At this point, the origins of the “ta-dum” noise which has become the platform’s sonic icon is credited to sound designer Lon Bender (and Hans Zimmer recently did a symphonic remix for movie theaters). But for many, it will remain forever tied to the memory of Frank Underwood rapping his signature FU ring on his desk at the end of Season 2.

Plus — this is pretty inside baseball, but those who use the Netflix press site face a reminder of House of Cards‘s existence every time they sign in, as the login page’s URL and graphics pay tribute to Ed Meechum, played by Nathan Darrow, the Secret Service agent who protected Frank and Claire during the early seasons.

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Image via Netflix

It’s easy to understand why Netflix has held onto the memory of its first bonafide hit for so long. After all, it really did completely change everything — something Fincher was well aware of, at the time. In interviews conducted around the show’s original premiere, Fincher talked about how he was comfortable with the idea of launching all 13 episodes at once — seen then as the ballsiest aspect of the show’s premiere — because he’d personally binged Breaking Bad that way on Netflix. As he told Alan Sepinwall in 2013:

This is how a lot of people are comfortable and in some cases preferred consuming this kind of story. I can only tell you from my experience because for the first time, two weeks ago, Beau and Josh Donen and Eric Roth and I sat down and we watched 13 hours from beginning to end. And it’s crazy. It’s like a book. It’s like you reading a chapter, set it down. Go get some Thai food, come back, fire it up again. It works in a different way. The pace of consumption in some way informs a kind of relationship that you have with the characters, which is very different from destination television. Or you know the (“I Love Lucy” rerun) at 7:30 at Tuesday nights. Those days are gone; that’s done. So is this a valid way to consume? Yeah, absolutely, and it has been for years now. We’re not doing anything new in that respect. The only thing that’s new is no one’s ever seen this before this moment. It’s not downstream of previous understanding. This is its initial understanding.

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Fincher and Netflix together got people to take the leap into a new era of television, whether we like it or not, and there’s no going back. No wonder Netflix has given him an exclusive deal for the next four years, to make “content” of his choosing. There’s no doubt that whatever form that takes, it will demand our complete attention.

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