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When David Fincher Changed TV Forever

Thanks to ‘House of Cards,’ the man so deeply associated with filmmaking may ironically be best remembered for his impact on the streaming revolution

Netflix/Ringer illustration

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social Network, The Ringer hereby dubs September 21-25 David Fincher Week. Join us all throughout the week as we celebrate and examine the man, the myth, and his impeccable body of work.

Try and think back, if you can, to 2013. Obama has just won a second term. “Netflix” still means DVDs in red envelopes. And the idea of a major director deigning to do TV is remarkable enough to turn heads.

David Fincher was hardly the first name-brand auteur to try his hand at the small screen. Most famously, David Lynch brought paranormal dread to primetime with Twin Peaks in 1989; Steven Spielberg directed multiple episodes of his NBC anthology Amazing Stories, with subsequent chapters helmed by Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, and Danny DeVito. But Fincher is neither an irrepressible weirdo prone to counterintuitive career moves nor a middlebrow populist with a family-friendly sensibility. He is, in many ways, a textbook Film Director: an uncompromising visionary who makes dark, violent, and above all, precise movies for adults. Fincher is the last person you could picture taking notes from a network executive, or taking part in the logistical corner-cutting that marks so much of TV production, which naturally made him the first person an up-and-coming entertainment hub would call to signal they’re Not Like Other Networks.

The political drama House of Cards set a mold we now recognize from more recent flagships like The Morning Show or The Mandalorian—a gauntlet-throw by a new service to signal there’s a new, amply funded player on the streaming scene. Back then, though, we hadn’t become jaded by multibillion-dollar parent companies throwing their weight around with movie stars and major IP. In 2011, it was legitimately shocking when a glorified rental service outbid the homes of Mad Men and The Sopranos to order two full seasons of a show starring an Oscar winner. Just as eye-catching as Kevin Spacey’s involvement was Fincher’s, an executive producer for whom House of Cards’ first two episodes would serve as follow-up to The Social Network.

A Fincher profile from the time in the Directors Guild of America’s quarterly magazine is almost comical at how awestruck it seems by the idea of a director dabbling in what is historically, per the cliché, a writer’s medium. House of Cards, the piece promised, “is a series uncommon as a creative enterprise, in that it marries the production efficiency of multiple-episode television with the directorial control typically associated with moviemaking.” Imagine that! But of course, the concept only seems comical in hindsight because of the world House of Cards, and David Fincher, hath wrought.

Seven years after House of Cards’ debut, Netflix has transformed the way we consume television, a shift Fincher was quick to predict and embrace. “The world of 7:30 on Tuesday nights, that’s dead,” Fincher told DGA Quarterly. “A stake has been driven through its heart, its head has been cut off, and its mouth has been stuffed with garlic. The captive audience is gone. If you give people this opportunity to mainline all in one day, there’s reason to believe they will do it.” Several other streaming-era tropes also come up in this early press: bragging about the lack of notes; the likening of a serialized TV season to a super-sized movie; the insistence, borrowed from late-’90s HBO, that “This isn’t TV.” Yet binge-watching, talent empowerment, and extended narrative arcs are now far more typical in TV than not, at least in the echelon House of Cards helped establish.

Fincher’s TV career now spans House of Cards, Mindhunter, and the animated anthology Love, Death, & Robots, all at Netflix. House of Cards’ legacy is now mixed, due to both revelations regarding Spacey and the diminishing returns of later seasons. Fincher’s track record, meanwhile, is studded with projects either called off entirely or put on hold, which is where Mindhunter finds itself following its second season. (The show has yet to be officially cancelled, but the cast’s contracts were allowed to expire earlier this year.) But thanks to House of Cards’ influence, Fincher’s unlikely impact on the medium remains secure—even as subsequent efforts show that TV hasn’t totally adopted his methods.

With its condensed timelines and even tighter budgets, traditional TV is antithetical to the fastidious, perfectionist approach Fincher has long taken to his work and instilled in his protagonists. Early reports suggested Fincher ran into predictable budget issues with Netflix despite an overall commitment of $100 million, averaging out to over $3.5 million per episode. But Fincher nonetheless made it work while bending TV conventions to fit his routines, as well as vice versa. He shot the first two episodes of House of Cards over a combined 26 days, averaging around 14 takes per setup—not quite the dozens upon dozens some of Fincher’s other actors have reported, but certainly more than average. Subsequent directors, including Batman Forever’s Joel Schumacher, were chosen carefully and given pairs of episodes to shoot as a block. Fincher’s steady, wide, crisp compositions set the tone for House of Cards’ cold machinations as much as anything in Beau Willimon’s scripts. In its first season, at least, House of Cards is recognizably Fincherian, even if it wasn’t made according to his typical M.O.

Ever the experimenter, Steven Soderbergh would follow Fincher’s lead the next year with The Knick, upping the ante by directing all 20 episodes himself; he then produced the Starz adaptation of his film The Girlfriend Experience, a more overtly indie take on the idea of director-driven TV, in 2016. In 2017, Jean-Marc Vallée channeled Big Little Lies’ star power into a lyrical, elliptical slant on the suburban satire, then followed that up with the whodunnit-cum-tone-poem Sharp Objects. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return, another 2017 production, is more overtly Lynchian than even the original, while Park Chan-Wook’s Little Drummer Girl gives John Le Carré a charge of eroticism. All of these are more unfiltered artistic statements than House of Cards, but they’re also difficult to imagine without it, as are less name-driven feats of TV as blockbuster filmmaking, from Game of Thrones’ battle sequences to Mr. Robot’s simulated single take.

Fincher himself stepped up his investment with Mindhunter, directing seven episodes to date and even overseeing the scripts. The latter shift in process makes Mindhunter an even more radical break from TV’s status quo, where “showrunner” is typically synonymous with “head writer.” That disruption shows in the final product: Mindhunter has a slow, uneven rhythm to match its deconstruction of true crime and TV procedurals. To detractors, it’s an implicit critique of a genre it doesn’t bother to fully engage with, eschewing episodic structure as a symbolic move without a suitably compelling replacement; to its champions, the show expands Fincher’s TV footprint to include his pacing and themes as well as his visual style. (This is the man who made a two-and-a-half-hour murder mystery with no conclusion, after all.) Either explanation helps to put Mindhunter into context as a show truer to Fincher’s overall vision, but one with neither the popular success nor awards-based acclaim House of Cards earned as Netflix’s first-ever tentpole. Those two facts may not be unrelated.

For someone so deeply associated with film, it’s ironic that Fincher may have more of a long-term effect on a medium that’s very much a secondary concern to him. The cultural and stylistic influence of Fincher’s filmography are undeniable, but structurally, the mid-budget, adult-oriented fare he specializes in has been on the decline for decades, hence the six-year gap between Gone Girl and the upcoming Mank. On the other hand, as Netflix’s coming-out party alone, House of Cards can be credited with changing TV forever. And while the writer may never be entirely displaced from TV’s ruling class, both directors and actors now take up far more space in the medium than they used to.

Fincher’s entry into television wouldn’t have been possible at any prior point in television history. House of Cards marked the baton-passing between Golden Age shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad—scrappy underdogs that proved how much TV could accomplish within its natural constraints—and the latter-day arms race that gives creators the resources to expand their ambitions. But Fincher’s projects have also become proof of how patrons like Netflix are no longer as no-strings-attached generous as they once were, and the ones that never made it to air suggest his methods still don’t always fit even TV’s expanded tent. David Fincher helped make TV more friendly to figures like him—even if he’ll never be entirely at home there.