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Netflix's 'House of Cards' looks, but doesn't sound, like a hit

TelevisionHouse of Cards (tv program)Netflix Inc.Corey StollMad Men (tv program)Kate Mara

If "House of Cards" were an actual television show, this would be the day after its finale — a time to analyze the cultural impact of the E-ticket D.C. thriller starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, and to painstakingly mine the end of the first season for clues to the second. There would be hashtags and recaps, heated discussions and lists of things to love and hate.

Instead: radio silence. After all, fans have already seen the finale weeks, possibly months, ago. Or they haven't. Or they're watching it right now. Who knows? Because "House of Cards" isn't a television show; it's the first big scripted drama produced for the former purveyor of DVDs and secondhand streaming content, Netflix. Unleashed at 12:01 a.m. on Feb. 1 in its 13-episode entirety, "House of Cards" would, we were told by people who seemed to know, change the world as we know it.

So how come no one is talking about it?

In a business sense, the series appears to be a success. This week, after premiering its second fully downloadable series, "Hemlock Grove," Netflix announced it had surpassed HBO in U.S. subscriber numbers. An Olympian high jump in stock value quickly followed.

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The drama's place in the cultural conversation, however, is trickier to locate; frankly, it doesn't seem to have one. Debuting to rave reviews (including mine) and a general sense of new media triumph, it opened big and then quickly went on buzz mute.

People simply didn't know how to talk about it. "House of Cards," it turned out, was the world's first anti-water-cooler drama.

Those who devoured the series in one or a few gulps were afraid to spoil plot twists for those on a less bingified schedule. There was some discussion about this four or five weeks in, but it trailed off in an unsatisfying way. It's difficult to chat about not chatting, even on Twitter.

Some venues doggedly recapped "House of Cards" one or two or three episodes at a time, but the show and its stars were conspicuously absent from magazine covers and weekly critics' picks because the series has no identifiable audience timeline. Even the big narrative events — the apparent defection of Robin Wright's character or the murder of Rep. Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) — occurred with little media fanfare.

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Despite the rise of DVR nation, television remains a collective experience, and "House of Cards" was occurring outside the social pale — a humbling experience for those who attempt to drive the conversation. But more important, it's a hugely contrarian argument in the digital universe, where the creators and stars of other shows regularly maintain a steady drumbeat of anticipation for each episode, often tweeting hourly countdowns to both coasts.

Indeed, since the advent of "Mad Men," with its relatively small but powerful fan base, the traditionally numerical measure of a television show's impact has given way to an ever-shifting calculation of many things, including the devotion a show inspires, and the size of its cultural footprint.

Yet even by those terms, the popularity of "House of Cards" is almost impossible to gauge, especially since Netflix won't release audience figures. The actors may have had great lines, but no one was repeating them. And Claire may have worn fabulous clothes, but no one is featuring them in "Get This Look" sections.

Critically, "House of Cards" turned out to be a fairly standard model show. Having drawn two A-list stars, a feature film writer and, for the initial two episodes, a big director (David Fincher), the D.C. drama based on a British show by the same name opened impressively and then fell sharply, in tone and structure. (Which may explain why Netflix made only two episodes available for review.)

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Episode 3 was a drag, Episode 4 slightly better; but it wasn't until the sixth or seventh hour (midseason) that "House of Cards" found its comfort zone. Which was a letdown after the impressive opener, but still quite smart and satisfying.

Spacey and Wright remained dazzling as the Machiavellian power couple Francis and Claire Underwood, although poor Kate Mara had the unenviable task of modernizing the "girl reporter" role from the original. Ambitious young Zoe Barnes first offered to print whatever Underwood said in exchange for insider information (her editor is portrayed as a complete moron), then she slept with him before turning on him.

Not surprisingly, when folks in the media talked about "House of Cards," it was often about how much they hated the character of Zoe Barnes. The narrative took a few interesting turns, as when Francis visited his all-male alma mater and tenderly revisited a romantic relationship he had with a schoolmate, but there being no natural forum for discussing such things, they mostly went undiscussed.

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It will be interesting to see how "House of Cards" plays at Emmy time — nominations for Spacey and Wright seem all but guaranteed, although the actors' absence from the limelight, especially as networks launch their equally high-voltage new content — Jane Campion's "Top of the Lake" and Ray McKinnon's "Rectify," both for Sundance Channel — might play against them.

Much more unpredictable is how the Netflix model will fare in the long run. Television's current state of ascendancy is due, in no small part, to the rather astonishing return of the electronic hearth. Its dimensions have been modified, by the DVR and the computer screen, but television is the centerpiece of social discourse in a way it hasn't been in decades.

"House of Cards" and its full-season dump doesn't quite fit into that model; it creates a blaze, but no seating. These days people like to watch a show, then hang out together and talk awhile.

The upcoming and highly anticipated resurrection of "Arrested Development" may provide Netflix with some answers. Seven years after its cancellation, its fans are still talking about it; it's hard to imagine they'll let a little thing like a brand new delivery model get in their way.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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TelevisionHouse of Cards (tv program)Netflix Inc.Corey StollMad Men (tv program)Kate Mara
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