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Netflix dives into original programming with political drama 'House of Cards'

TORONTO – Although eager to try his hand at television, Oscar-nominated director David Fincher admits he knew all along there would be nothing conventional about his first foray into serialized drama.

It would be slick, big-budget, packed with heavyweight actors and done exactly the way the “Fight Club” director wanted.

In the end, that meant Fincher’s political drama “House of Cards” wouldn’t debut on television, per se, but on Netflix — the online streaming service available only to subscribers.

“We ended up in a partnership with a company who seems like they were more closely aligned with the show that we wanted to make and the way that we wanted to make it,” Fincher says in a recent interview from Pasadena, Calif., noting that the big premium cable players also expressed interest.

“In the end the best choice, I think, was Netflix who said, ‘We love what this is and we love where it can go and we’d like to see you swing for the rafters.'”

Netflix ordered two batches of 13-episode seasons — a commitment virtually unheard of for network and cable television outlets these days — and reportedly sunk $100-million into a program poised to be their new flagship.

Perhaps fittingly, “House of Cards” seems to have more in common with a theatrical feature film than a typical TV drama: There’s the obvious pedigree of Fincher, the fact that it stars film veterans Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright and a script by the Oscar-nominated “Ides of March” scribe Beau Willimon.

Spacey takes centre stage as smarmy congressman Francis Underwood, a power-hungry chief whip who goes after his enemies with Machiavellian fervour when he’s passed over for secretary of state.

Wright plays Frank’s equally cunning wife Claire, whose own ambitions centre on expanding her charity work to a global enterprise, even if it means throwing some of her well-meaning colleagues by the wayside.

The sprawling ensemble includes Kate Mara (“American Horror Story”) as smart young journalist Zoe Barnes, whose career ambitions draw her into a dangerous relationship with the manipulative Frank.

The story is dense and cerebral, Wright acknowledges by phone from the recent TV critics’ press tour in Pasadena, Calif., where Netflix gained a berth alongside more typical small screen networks.

“But it’s also very human in the (characters’) ambition, the level of ambition and what kind of drive and fortitude it takes,” says Wright, who says Fincher courted her for the project while they filmed “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

It’s been roughly 25 years since the former “Santa Barbara” regular has done anything on the small screen.

But Wright says she was lured to “House of Cards” by the show’s pedigree and Fincher’s pitch: “‘Do you want to play Lady MacBeth to Kevin Spacey’s MacBeth?'”

“I think the beauty of it is I have somewhere to go, that I’m not just the shell of evil,” she says of her character.

“The woman, the human emerges, breaks through. The shell starts to crack slowly.”

Fincher says he took interest in the project after seeing the 1990 BBC miniseries “House of Cards.” That series was based on a novel by a former political insider, Michael Dobbs.

For those eager to compare, the British version is also available for immediate streaming on Netflix.

The first 13 episodes of the U.S. reboot meanwhile, will be available Friday, says Netflix boss Ted Sarandos.

“It really is the first major television show to be produced for this format,” Sarandos says of expectations people will watch more than one episode at a time — while some may even attempt to watch all at once.

“We don’t spend any storytelling time catching people up — no exposition, no ‘previously on’ and ‘on the next’ previews. What you end up with is a show that is crafted to be a much longer experience, more like a feature film. More like a 13-hour film that you can watch in whatever the size bites you want.”

That forced everyone involved to think about storytelling in a completely different way, says Fincher, whose lengthy film credits include “The Social Network,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Zodiac” and “Se7en.”

“It’s one thing when Tony Soprano, you know, behaviourally shows you all these different facets of himself over three months (on HBO’s ‘The Sopranos’). And then it’s a completely different thing when you have the DVDs in your hand and you watch his reveal over seven or eight hours,” he says, noting that the on-demand nature of “House of Cards” meant plot points could be delivered more in the way of “a dropped hint.”

“There were things that we trimmed and that we changed because we were like, ‘We get it.'”

Fincher says he, Willimon and executive producers Josh Donen and Eric Roth sat down to watch all 13 hours over two days.

“It’s a slightly more literary experience,” he says of on-demand watching.

“You stop when you want and you pick it up and if you really want to turn the pages it’s all there. And if you don’t — you want to savour something or you’re upset by something — you can kind of set it down. There’s an odd intimacy in its presentation which is sort of fascinating.”

Original programs like “House of Cards” are key to getting audiences to rethink where and how they get their home entertainment, Sarandos has often said.

It’s also key to revamping Netflix’s image as simply a library of past-date TV series and films.

The company made its first stab at must-see original content last year with “Lilyhammer,” starring Steven Van Zandt as a New York gangster who goes into hiding in Norway. A second season is slated for fall, with several more titles running the gamut from edgy comedies to horror fare.

The Toronto-shot murder mystery “Hemlock Grove” starts April 19, the acclaimed comedy “Arrested Development” gets new life in May, “Weeds” producer Jenji Kohan backs the prison-set “Orange Is the New Black” in late spring, while the new Ricky Gervais series “Derek” is slated for summer.

Sarandos says “Arrested Development” is especially suited to binge-watching since storylines and jokes are intertwined from episode-to-episode.

“There are jokes that are set up in the first episode that have punchlines in the third episode and then callbacks in the eighth episode. (Creator) Mitch (Hurwitz) has really embraced the format when he created this show,” he says of the new episodes.

“The largest complaint of the network, which was Fox in the case of the U.S., about ‘Arrested Development’ when the show was on the air was that it was just ‘too much.’ People couldn’t follow it week-to-week because there were too many characters and too many storylines and it’s the complete opposite of what we wanted. We wanted more depth and more characters and more storylines.”

He says Netflix plans to release 14 new episodes in May.

Sarandos says it’s all about giving his subscribers “ultimate choice.”

“Current television executives — I get a lot of advice from them — tell me how stupid this is,” he sneers.

“(They say) part of the excitement of a show is dragging it out and that consumers really want to wait and waiting is part of the process. I just don’t believe that. I don’t think that waiting is part of what people like about a TV show. And if you do want to wait, then just wait.”

Season 1 of “House of Cards” is available Friday on Netflix.