Is House of Cards TV?

Its creator doesn't think so. A conversation with Beau Willimon about streaming, the creative process, and the meaninglessness of the word "television"
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Netflix

When all House of Cards first hit the Internet a year ago, the buzz around the show said that the way it was created and distributed—as an entire season developed outside of the traditional network structure, made available for streaming all at once—would change entertainment forever.

Phase Two of that supposed revolution kicks of 3 a.m. Eastern Friday, when the Emmy-nominated political drama's second season goes online. But now the hype is more about the show itself: What dark dealings will new U.S. Vice President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), his wife Claire (Robin Wright), and the reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) get up to under the stylish direction of David Fincher?

But it's worth marveling just how quickly people have come to accept the prospect of getting to watch an entire new TV season at your own pace, wherever you want. And it's worth wondering how the rise of streaming affects not only how shows are watched, but how they're made. Does it change the creative process to know half your audience will consume your show's entire season in one week?

I put that question to House of Cards creator Beau Willimon last December, as production on Season Two was wrapping up. Willimon began his show-business career as a playwright and received an Oscar nomination for helping pen Ides of March. But outside of collaborating on one scrapped pilot intended for AMC ("a historical drama that took place on a plantation during the Civil War where one of the slaves was a spy for the North," he says), he had never worked in television production before House of CardsAnd to hear him tell it, he's not really working in television now. That's because "television," he says, is a word that's lost all meaning.

The following interview has been edited and condensed.


You hail from the world of theater originally. What were your impressions of TV screenwriting before you got started with House of Cards?

I had a few friends working in television, but every story is so vastly different. Every network is different. Every show is different. Every team is different. So it’s tough to have expectations because there’s no real schema to it all.

What I knew was that we had to get 800 pages under our belt. I had put a lot of thought into the broad strokes of what would happen during Season One. And I had the benefit of knowing from the get-go who our two stars would be and what they would bring to the roles. But at the end of the day, creating something is always a banging-the-head-against-the-wall game. Whether it’s a play that you’re going to do for an audience of 50 or whether it’s a TV show that you want to do for millions. You have to get in a room, you have to start coming up with ideas, and most of those ideas will be bad. Eventually you arrive an idea that is good. You explore it, you wrestle with it, you rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until you think you’ve got it.

You’re describing what sounds like a pretty pure creative process, where you’re just focused on coming up with the best way to tell the story. Where my impression is, if you talk to TV writers not too long ago or even now in a network environment, it’s pretty different—you have your commercial breaks to write around, and you have a lot of constraints from the higher-ups. Do you work feeling "thank god I don’t have those constraints," or were they just never even there in your head?

I definitely feel very lucky that I don’t have to take into consideration a lot of the constraints that a lot of more traditional TV shows have to contend with. You’re absolutely right that if you’re writing a network show, there are specific act breaks where commercials are going to happen and you have to hit an exact minute mark. And you also often have to submit to many layers of corporate notes, and that just wasn’t the case on our show. Netflix gave us a huge degree of creative control.

There are still certain fundamental parameters. Our show still generally has to be around an hour because we still sell internationally to networks that will traditionally air it week-to-week with commercials sometimes. But I didn’t think about commercials or act breaks or anything like that.

I guess the biggest thing that affected the writing of our show was not releasing all 13 [episodes] at once—we didn’t know we were going to do that until about halfway through production of Season One. It was always a possibility, but a traditional week-to-week release was a possibility as well. So were other permutations between those two extremes. The biggest thing was knowing we had two seasons guaranteed. Because it meant I could think about something layered in early in Season One that might not boomerang back till the end of Season Two. It meant a much broader canvas, and not having to force arbitrary cliffhangers or frontload Season One for the sake of jacking ratings for the fight for one’s survival. It makes you think about story in a totally different way.

That makes sense. You originally wrote the pilot not knowing it’d be on Netflix, right?

Right, and we never say it was a pilot because we never intended to do a pilot. We either wanted to do at least a full season or not do the show at all. I understand the business model of wanting to do pilots: A network is going to invest a great deal into a show and they want to see something before they make that investment. But, at the same time, that can sometime have a detrimental effect on the show itself because one feels the need to sell the show with the pilot. It puts an incredible amount of pressure on those 60 minutes or those 30 minutes.

Once you knew all the episodes would be released at once—I guess this applies more to Season Two—has that affected the way you’re thinking about telling the story?

Not at all. No.

Why not?

Just because you’re releasing all the episodes in one day doesn’t necessitate that people are going to binge-watch. There are plenty of people who watch it one episode here, two episodes there, who might space it out over a matter of weeks or months. If you look at shows like Sopranos or Breaking Bad, Dexter, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, all these great shows have come out in the last decade and a half, all of those shows were released in the traditional week-to-week format. However, many peoples’ experience of those shows was a binge-type viewing either through boxed sets or DVR or On Demand. So without the term “binge watching” having been coined yet, those shows were working. All the writers were thinking about was telling a really great story. You can say we had a reverse experience where we knew that binge-watching was going to be a possibility, but ultimately, since that wasn’t the only mode by which people might watch, it had to be able to work the other way as well—a more traditional way.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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