Defamer’s reporting that House of Cards executive producer Rick Cleveland has said that Netflix’s breakout hit will only run for two seasons because “Kevin Spacey likes to do movies and Robin Wright likes to do movies.” Given that Kevin Spacey’s talked repeatedly about the creative freedom and potential in business models like Netflix’s, and given that he’s spent a lot of time working in theater lately, I’m not sure how accurate that assessment is, at least when it comes to the lead actor. And given that Robin Wright’s character could always divorce or leave Frank Underwood, or get killed in a parking garage should she become an impediment to his ambitions, I’m not sure that she’s necessary for the show to continue. But I actually think House of Cards might end up being a stronger show if it had a limited run.
It’s worth remembering that at 13 episodes, the first season of House of Cards is already longer than the British Francis Urquhart series — House Of Cards, To Play The King, and The Final Cut — on which it’s based, and that series already is longer than the novel from which it’s drawn, in which Urquhart dies at the end. This is not to say that original stories have to be definitive. But it does suggest that successful versions of the basic story have been done extremely well at shorter lengths, and it’s a useful reminder that more isn’t always better. In fact, one of Netflix’s strengths ought to be that its business model can tailor lengths of episodes and episode orders to the needs of a story, though thus far, FX, to name on example, has actually done more to dramatically vary episode lengths than Netflix ever has.
And let’s talk about what would be best for House of Cards. The show easily could have finished in its first season and been a fascinating commentary on the powerlessness of even Frank Underwood’s limitless ambition when he has to go up against the raw authority of money in politics. Ending the way it did, that would have been an exceptional statement about the extent to which politics has been captured by exceptionally wealthy people who don’t need to spend their time actually serving in government when they can influence it so easily from outside.
But Frank is an anti-hero, and so his story is going to continue. And it can still be interesting! Maybe we’ll see him rise all the way to the White House over the course of the next season. But part of what’s interesting about Underwood as a character is that he’s risen so far and is still unsatisfied. The leap from the House of Representatives to the Presidency is still a vast one, but it’s considerably smaller than the distance between the Oval Office and, say, Pawnee, Indiana. And if Underwood fails to make the jump, he’s not going to have a lot more chances — that’s both true to the political system the show is trying to capture, and true to what would be interesting as a dynamic on a television show. So House of Cards has a choice: Underwood can make one last mighty effort at the presidency and fail, coming face-to-face with his own limitations, or he can succeed, and find that the Oval Office is a rather empty place if all you cared about was occupying it, rather than thinking about what you’d do when you get there.
Also, there’s the fact that Underwood murdered a fellow member of Congress, and if the show doesn’t want to come across as even sillier than Scandal, which unlike House of Cards embraces its goofy, House of Cards probably has to deal with that at some point. I don’t know if Frank will break down drunkenly at another college reunion, or if Zoe Barnes and all of DC’s other Evil Slut Reporters will bring him down. But a dead Congressman in the front seat of a car in the first act probably demands a Congressional investigation or some DC detecting by the third.
At the end of the day, though, there’s a difference between a show ending because people want to work on different things at the end of their Congressional obligations, and a show ending after two seasons because it’s done with the story it was telling. One of the legacies of the broadcast and cable television model is a sense that if a show ends after a season or two seasons, it’s some sort of failure, whether on the part of an audience that failed to connect to it, or a network that failed to sense its cultural importance or long-tail popularity. One of the most creatively interesting things Netflix could do would be to break that association, talking to creators not just about how much time and resources they need to establish their stories on the front end, but talking to them about when it makes sense for a show to end rather than turning it into a zombie cash cow. It’s more honorable to be Freaks and Geeks, with one perfect season, than the desiccated corpse that now airs in the slot of How I Met Your Mother.