Is House of Cards ultimately self referential

Like a novel, the show spends no time recapping or refreshing our memory of what happened last time, because it assumes the last episode was watched recently. This kind of devoted attention means the show can make twists and turns in detail-oriented content without fear that viewers will miss something or get lost. It keeps the world alive in the viewer/reader's mind. Another similarity to novels is the buy-in, uninterrupted, ad-free experience. Each hour-long episode is actually an hour long, with no commercial breaks to loosen the grip of the plot or distract from the drama.

And this kind of ever growing complexity seems, from a step removed, to simply be the next logical evolution in television content. Steven Johnson, author of Emergence, wrote in a 2005 New York Times article, "Watching TV Makes You Smarter" (2005), "Televised intelligence is on the rise. Think of the cognitive benefits conventionally ascribed to reading: attention, patience, retention, the parsing of narrative threads. Over the last half-century, programming on TV has increased the demands it places on precisely these mental faculties."

In graphs explaining story density, Johnson compared TV series from different decades. Here the vertical axis represents the number of individual story threads the viewer needs to follow, and the horizontal axis is time. With this type of visualization, Starsky and Hutch, a TV darling of the '70s, is revealed, even to those who have never seen the show, to be a simple, straightforward narrative, easy to follow with little attention required. The Sopranos, a show loved by early 2000s audiences, by comparison, maintains a main storyline, as seen in the almost complete line of boxes near the bottom of the graph, but also knits in bits of other stories as it goes, making for a more dynamic, engaging and attention-demanding show.

But House of Cards with its ad-free, long-format, binge-watching structural envelope allows for even higher levels of complexity than allowed by the old television format. The streaming environment provides space for more information and heightened complexity in both story lines and character development. Only the slow improvement in viewing technology seems to be controlling the speed at which we move from Starsky and Hutch to House of Cards. Whatever is the next, newest content viewing platform, we can be sure even more richly variegated stories are on their way.