House of Cards: Plenty of Legs to Run On

You can't snort your way to the top, Peter.

You can’t snort your way to the top, Peter.

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Third Time’s A Charm

Lets zoom out for a little TV industry chit-chat. Ask the opinion of anyone in “the biz” about whether a show has the “legs” for a longer run and most of them might ask to see the first three episodes. For most of them, by the third episode it becomes evident if a show will maintain its quality and set itself on the classic journey of critical and awards acclaim matched with a loyal audience.

TV pilots are the crucial bait set to get networks to buy up a full-season order. Pilots set the tone, establish the style, introduce the central themes and set in place the entire show’s mythology and universe. It’s also the platform for high-profile talent and cast to bring home their best. The creative leadership, crew and cast are usually feeling one another out at this early stage and the chemistry between everyone is tested.

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Production on Chapter 2.

High-pedigree directing talent is usually brought in to helm the first one or two episodes of high-profile shows, so much so that there are TV directors who don’t get out of bed unless it’s for a pilot or a season/series finale. Some directors don’t even do that, choosing instead to partner with a writer and sit at the helm as the show’s supervising director, sharing executive producer credit. Gus Van Sant was brought in for STARZ’s BOSS, Jon Cassar for SyFy’s Continuum, Jon Favreau for NBC’s Revolution. Big money is shelled  out for top-notch talent and crew, and this is not only a financial risk, it’s a practical story-telling risk because usually by the third and fourth episodes shows strategically pull back on budgets by producing a couple mid-season “bottle” episodes, usually critical and creative high-points for a show because of contained narratives with limited cast (typically focusing primarily on the leads, but not always) and locations, primarily focused on character study or relationships. In this way as well the bulk of the show’s budget can be focused on later episodes in the season, particularly the penultimate episode and season finales which usually draw larger audiences, beyond the core viewership, and require more expenditure on cast and marketing.

House of Cards Executive Producer and Director, David Fincher.

House of Cards Executive Producer and Director, David Fincher.

David Fincher is one of the executive producers on HOC and the directing supervisor as well. By the third episode, outside directors are recruited and invited to direct specific episodes. The challenge at that stage is matching directing styles, mood and tone while also drawing out the same high quality performances from the cast. In short, it has to stay  essentially congruous to the show’s look, as established in the pilot. Usually, shows in their second or third season have entered auto-pilot and the cast essentially direct themselves because they know the characters much more than the guest director for any particular episode. Guest directors must balance asserting themselves creatively and working well with the crew and cast that know the show really well. These directors, if they shoot an episode that succeeds in honouring the show’s style, work well with everyone and shoot coverage that cuts well are often asked to return for. Television is a producer and writer’s medium where directors are journeymen. Often a show’s regular director of photography will play advisory roles for incoming directors about how certain kind of locations are shot or coverage that’s typical for the show. Even down to how a show typically shoots masters, close-ups, inserts, etc.

House of Cards Executive Producer and Showrunner Beau Willimon.

House of Cards Executive Producer and Showrunner Beau Willimon.

No TV script belongs to any one individual credited writer, because the writers room and breaking stories on episodes and season arcs is a wholly collaborative process shepherded by the Showrunner, usually but not always the show’s creator. In the case of HOC, it would be Beau Willimon. The third episode is typically when other writers, either from the room staff or hired guns, appear as credited writers either alone or in tandem with the showrunner and other writing staff. Again, another matter of a writer’s working chemistry, style and  ability to capture the voice of the show and its characters. It’s important to remember that by this point the season and episodic arcs have been broken, outlined and established well before a script is ready to be penned and weeks before cameras start rolling. Nothing is ever set in stone and scene/line rewrites are common at the last-minute, even on set. There’s no hard rule, but by the third episode, you can tell if the formula that succeeded in the pilot and episode 2 are likely to continue. It goes without saying that the most crucial bit is that audiences also start deciding whether to”fight or flight”. The buzz and bump from a show’s premiere episodes will level out and producers can begin to gauge what level of viewership they can expect.

So with all that can go right (and wrong) it seems everything has gone right on all fronts with House of Cards as the third chapter, directed by James Foley, co-written by Keith Huff and Beau Willimon, succeeded in continuing the excellence of Chapter 1 & 2. In fact, Chapter 3 is the best outing yet.

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