House of Cards, Netflix’s highly praised original series, is groundbreaking for many reasons. It’s not TV. It’s not even HBO. By releasing all 13 episodes of the series all at once, Netflix is trying to change the way TV is watched. In an excellent GQ article by Nancy Hass, Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer asks, “What if you could radically alter the way stories get told? What if the way people wanted to consume content actually changed what you could make?” With House of Cards, they have succeeded in changing television, except for one unnecessary relic of the past: breaking the fourth wall. With this they accomplish nothing.
The fourth wall is broken when an actor acknowledges the audience by speaking directly to them. Woody Allen famously did it in Annie Hall when, annoyed by a talkative character in line behind him, the bespectacled Allen turns to the screen to complain to everyone watching:
In comedy, breaking the fourth wall is often used to poke fun at the form of the medium and note that the world we’re watching is fictional. It doesn’t work this way in House of Cards.
Kevin Spacey plays Majority Whip of the U.S. House of Representatives Frank Underwood. The very first scene shows Underwood tend to a dog who was just struck by a car. Kneeling next to the dog, he looks into the camera as he strangles the animal and says, “I have no patience for useless things.”
Breaking the fourth wall in this sense is jarring. However, it doesn’t work in the way it should. Underwood speaking with the audience fails to advance his character or the story. It fails to head the advice of writing classes everywhere: show, don’t tell.
Even though speaking to an audience through a camera is anything but natural, breaking the fourth wall works best when it is conversational. In his Southern accent, Underwood’s speeches to the audience are obviously staged, not matching real world dialogue. (“I love that woman, I love her more than sharks love blood,” he says regarding his wife.)
As Tim Surette of TV.com points out in his review of House of Cards: “The self-satisfied smug mug he flashes when he's done imparting his wisdom, sometimes even after a new camera angle, doesn't help things either.”
None of this is to say that House of Cards is not entertaining. I've only watched the first episode, and I will be watching the rest. It is highly entertaining, but the fact that I can watch the entire series with the click of a mouse is one the main reasons I’ll be doing so.
It is a groundbreaking series, but not because it breaks the fourth wall.