House of Cards and the Era of Graphic Dramas About Antiheroes

In conversation with the screenwriter for the Netflix series, entertainment executive Michael Eisner marvels at how much creatives can now get away with.
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Reuters

This is a highly condensed exchange from a panel between Michael Eisner, the longtime entertainment executive, and Beau Willimon, the screenwriter behind House of Cards. They discussed how writers and directors can get away with graphic content and villainous characters that would've been unimaginable a generation ago. They briefly reference Netflix's Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos. There is a spoiler that concerns the first episode of House of Cards Season 2.

MICHAEL EISNER: We did Happy Days, back in the 1820s. And in the pilot, The Fonz teaches Richard Cunningham – Ron Howard – how to take a bra off the back of a radiator. He undid the snap and it flew off. ABC, where I was programming head, told me I could never, ever, ever, air it. It took me four years to get the pilot on the air. So if I said to ABC then and probably now–and this is a spoiler alert, if you haven't seen House of Cards, too bad– that you have Francis, Claire, and their security guard all kissing together, I would have been fired. 

BEAU WILLIMON: For our show, compared to the amount of sex and violence you see on The Sopranos or many other shows, I mean we're pretty tame actually, in terms of profanity, nudity or violence. Or you look at Mad Men, which is on basic cable, so there's no profanity or nudity, and yet there are incredibly sexy and suggestive and psychologically troubling moments in that. So in terms of the boundaries that are being pushed, different shows are appropriate on different networks... 

MICHAEL EISNER: The revolution that I see... I grew up in the era... when all you thought about was likability. La Verne and Shirley. Lenny and Squiggy. Love Boat. If you even thought of doing something where in the opening episode of the second season someone pushes a woman in front of a subway, I would be out in ten minutes...

BEAU WILLIMON: One thing I've said in terms of the word likable, and Netflix got mad at me for saying it: Fuck likability. I don't give two shits if someone likes my characters. I do care whether they're attracted to them. And there's a big difference. I don't mean sexually attracted. I mean attracted so that you can't keep your eyes off them, you're invested in them. He's not likable, but you have to know where he ends up, you have to follow his path. I'm interested in the tension where one moment you might like them and the next you abhor them, or maybe simultaneously. 

MICHAEL EISNER: So you didn't go through any conversations with executives about making House of Cards?

BEAU WILLIMON: Well at the time we started with Netflix it was just Cynthia and Ted. They didn't have any  executives.  

MICHAEL EISENER: [A character in an adult animation project I'm working on] says about somebody's composition of an opera, "That's as bad as ten 9/11s in a row." So I said, I don't like that. So I call up the producer. And the distributor is defending it. So I said, I'd like to find another line. I don't feel comfortable. So we came up with, "That's like ten adult circumcisions in a row." I thought that was funny. 

BEAU WILLIMON: But you're saying Netflix defended the 9/11 joke?

MICHAEL EISENER: Against my staff. My producer, I was trying to make them change it. They went around me to Netflix.

B: This is what's great about show business, where 9/11 is squaring off against brises. That happens. 

MICHAEL EISNER: I said to Ted, I give up. And he said, there are adult circumcisions. And it's not funny. Could you do me a favor and ask him if he was one of those? 

You can watch the whole panel here:

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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