Last week, Netflix announced the premiere date of its newest original series, House of Cards, a political drama starring Kevin Spacey and directed by David Fincher. But the highly anticipated premiere comes with an extra layer of intrigue: The streaming site is releasing the entire season at once. Since Netflix is the home of television binge-watching, adding an original series into the mix begs a major question: Will the the traditional TV schedule soon become obsolete? It’s no secret that ratings across the networks and cable channels are way down. And numbers have been decreasing since the DVR was first introduced in 2006. Add Hulu, iTunes, free On-Demand, and apps for practically every network that stream all the latest episodes right to a tablet or smartphone and we’ve reached territory where an audience of eight or nine million viewers in considered “decent” for a network series. Even one of the most successful network comedies, The Big Bang Theory — which attracted 15.66 million viewers during its Season 6 premiere — can’t fathom the 20 million-plus numbers that NBC’s Friends used to rake in on average. Seeing the decreasing numbers — and the sheer amount of programming available — it's impossible to deny that we’re moving towards a new television model. We just can't be certain of what it will actually look like. And that’s why Netflix’s push towards immediate availability with the release of House of Cards is so remarkable. The move opens up the definition of "original programming" and how we watch it. In a press release, Netflix’s Chief Content Office Ted Sarandos says the series is a “new kind of viewing experience for Netflix members … In offering the entire season at once, Netflix is giving viewers complete control over how and when they watch the show.” Such a TV-watching schedule is not unlike binge-watching, a practice many TV viewers enjoy during the off-seasons or to catch-up on buzzed-about programming. Except we'll all get a chance to binge-watch from day one.
It's a prospect that excites many TV fans who already prefer to set their own TV-watching schedule. “It’s so easy to get swept up," says frequent binge-watcher Robert Feinberg. "You can really see the story arc more clearly." And it's logical to expect to viewing habits to evolve further with the advent of more entertainment-supporting technology. After all, we already have technology to help us integrate our online viewing habits into our regularly scheduled couch potato habits. With inventions like Apple TV, Blu-Ray players with WiFi capabilities, the PlayStation 3, and other video game consoles that connect to online streaming and Internet-capable televisions, the line between the online, on-demand viewing experience, and the appointment-contingent regular television schedule is blurring. And that's exactly why filmmaker Morgan Spurlock — who launched his Hulu web series, A Day in the Life, in 2011 — felt it was the time to get into the web series game. “I think there’s going to be a real unification of content delivery," he told Hollywood.com back in April. "This whole idea of things that are only available on the Internet or things that are only on TV, within the next five to seven years will be eliminated completely,” he says. “It will be one pipe … whether that pipe leads to a computer screen or it feeds into a tabletop viewing box, a.k.a. a television … that it will all come into one place.” It doesn't hurt that an expanded TV delivery system also allows stars to flex their creativity even further — as Burning Love star Ken Marino told us about his Yahoo series, "With technology, you can quickly churn out stuff that has more of a singular voice. When you do stuff like that, you can throw it online."
Still, web series like A Day in the Life and Burning Love require its audience to wait a week in between new episodes, much like a traditional TV format. House of Cards, however, is unraveling that structure with its bold, free-for-all style release. And the move leaves us with a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum. Is House of Cards folding to the demands of TV community that’s come to expect what they want when they want it, or is the series doubling down on an experience they think could be the future of television?
It's hard to say, especially when the future of television is already here, according to some die-hard TV fans. The general “Water Cooler” conversation, marked by candid, detailed discussions of the previous night’s fictional exploits is now marred with “Shhh!” and “No spoilers!” thanks to the fans who’ve got the last five episodes cued up in their DVRs or on iTunes. Avid TV fan Rachel Hammer says, “Since DVRs came out, no one’s on the same page … you do miss out on that [water cooler] experience a little bit, but I don’t think it’s going to make or break anyone.” Adds Feinberg, “I think the water cooler experience has lost a lot of its impact.” While many of the bingers we spoke with saved the episode splurging for shows they missed the boat on, some folks are a little more dedicated to the practice. Especially binge-watching purist Catherine Wernquest, who actually waits until the whole season available before starting a show. For her, the water cooler chatter is a bit of a hazard. “A lot of times I’m sitting at a dinner table, plugging my ears and saying ‘No spoilers,’” she says.
But despite a few meals cut short, she notes that the heated conversations about the show don’t end the day after. As it turns out, water cooler conversation can flow long after the morning-after. “It can still happen; people still want to talk about what happened after the season’s over,” she says. Still, even the biggest binge-watching enthusiast can’t predict how audiences will handle this novelesque release of the entire season of House of Cards. Even among TV spree-loving folks, the pacing of episode consumption varies, an element that could actually make sure that all that’s left of the true water cooler chatter are sports and current events — things that demand to be consumed right when they're happening. “I do feel like because you can watch it all at one time, it’s going to miss the mark as far as buzz goes,” Feinberg says.
And it’s likely viewers’ pace of intake will be all over the map. After all, the appeal of binge-watching is the ability to tailor it to your own schedule. If that’s the case, then where will the buzz fit in? Now all we can do is wait for this great experiment to unfold. While it’s not going to turn regular network and cable programming into dinosaurs anytime soon, it will affect the culture around how we enjoy programming. How will it affect our television habits? And our water cooler habits? Will Netflix employ the same model for its new season of Arrested Development? (Please dear G.O.B., let it be so. We can't wait much longer.) House of Cards will be available on Netflix, in its entirety, starting Feb. 1, 2013. Additional reporting by Michael Arbeiter. Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler [Photo Credit:Joseph Marzullo/WENN; Netflix] More: Alia Shawkat Talks Breaking Free of 'Arrested Development' Then Coming Back for More 'Arrested Development': Henry Winkler to Appear in Season 5 Morgan Spurlock Says Hulu is the Future of TV
Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.
Loosely interwoven plotlines about five characters representing the human senses: A magic-fingered massage therapist (Gabrielle Rose); a bespectacled teenage voyeur (Nadia Litz); a cake baker whose taste in men gets her into trouble (Mary-Louise Parker); a music-loving Frenchman who is losing his hearing (Philippe Volter); and a bisexual house cleaner who says his sensitive shnozz can sniff true love (Daniel MacIvor). Tying the stories together -- sort of -- is the search for a lost young girl in the vicinity.
The terrific ensemble of mostly Canadian actors doesn't have a weak link. Playwright/performance artist MacIvor and Hollywood import Parker break up the picture's melancholy tone with much-needed moments of sarcastic humor. Veteran French thespian Volter gives a complex nuanced performance as a somewhat self-involved eye doctor whose impending deafness eventually generates real pathos.
Writer-producer-director Jeremy Podeswa has mixed success executing this abstract thematically ambitious work. Visually he and cinematographer Gregory Middleton serve up a true feast for the senses -- light streaming into imaginatively decorated rooms close-ups of objects so finely textured you want to reach out and grab them. On the narrative level the director has difficulty maintaining dramatic tension while intercutting between the several independent storylines.