Political dramas draw Netflix, Hulu fans

Posted May 2, 2016


With streaming services like Netflix and Hulu dominating the video entertainment scene, it was only a matter of time until they began producing original content. Netflix’s “House of Cards” premiered in 2013 and soon became one of the most discussed political dramas in recent years.

While the political drama genre does not seem to have a recorded history, one of the first television shows to take the screen under that label was “Yes Minister,” a British political satire show that ran from 1980 to 1984. The political drama genre seemed to have premiered in the U.S. with Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” in 1999. It is difficult to determine the genre’s imminent success, but it could be attributed to its similarity to reality. Viewers of all kinds can relate to political dramas, as politics plays an important role in their day to day lives.

Seeing that political dramas entice a wide cross-section of TV-watchers, many others started coming to fruition. Netflix also premiered the successful story behind Colombia drug lord Pablo Escobar in “Narcos” and Hulu just released an adaptation of Stephen King’s “11.22.63,” which tells the story of a time-traveller planning to stop the Kennedy assassination.

All three shows have received critical acclaim for their plot, acting and cinematography. Not to mention the creation of a wide fan base that supports the political drama phenomenon.

Netflix’s “House of Cards” premiered its fourth season on March, and already renewed the show for a fifth season set to be released on 2017. The show follows the life of Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in his quest to gain power at all costs.

Season four began displaying tension between Frank’s also power-thirsty wife Claire Underwood, and her desire to run for Congress. This season was action-packed and made sure to leave spectators on the edge of their seats. After encompassing themes of betrayal, bringing back the past to hunt the Underwoods and putting everything at stake in an international scandal, it is safe to say that this is one of the best seasons yet.

With every episode dealing with conflicts and revealing compromising information from Frank’s past, this has been a fast-paced season. “House of Cards” is seamlessly transitioning into a very dark place for its main characters, who went from murdering individuals who presented themselves as a challenge to their power, to now causing potential mass fatalities. Kevin Spacey is impeccable in the role of Frank; it is difficult to understand his megalomaniac motivations, and Spacey’s cryptic portrayal of the anti-hero encompasses this perfectly.

According to The Atlantic, “House of Cards” was one of the first series to kick start the binge-watching phenomenon and it continues to successfully do so with an enticing plot and spectacular acting.

The 2015 series “Narcos” was also created around the binge-watching phenomenon, but this time focusing on the international political scene and the politics of drugs. The show’s first season received international attention and quickly climbed to the same success series like “House of Cards” attained. A second season is set to premiere in 2016.

The show tells the story of notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar and his rise as the king of the Medellin Cartel from the late 1970s to early 1990s. From the rise of cocaine as a drug for the rich in Miami to U.S. involvement with Escobar’s capture, the show intricately depicts every detail that history left behind and meshes it beautifully with strokes of fiction.

Like “House of Cards,” the political premise “Narcos” is extremely enticing and action-packed, but two aspects of the show really take the lead: acting and cinematography. Brazilian actor Wagner Moura, who began gaining international recognition after his role in “Elite Squad,” portrays Escobar. Moura’s successful depiction of the complex Colombian drug lord earned him a Golden Globe nomination.

Like Frank Underwood, Escobar is a character that does not really know what motivates him – only that he wants more; more power, more money, more recognition. Moura’s performance delivers Escobar’s inner dilemmas, struggles and his life as a “poor person with money.”

In terms of cinematography, “Narcos” shows incredible variety with its depictions of the beautiful Colombian rainforest, the worn down city slums, and the dark rooms that are made smaller by towering stacks of cocaine. The attention to detail is spectacular; from costuming to a more washed down video tint that showcases the period in question, cinematographer Mauricio Vidal does not miss one spot.

While the show seems to lack characters that viewers can sympathize with (granted, how could you sympathize with drug lords and criminals?), it delivers a fantastic and addictive plot.

Most recently, the political science fiction series “11.22.63,” a Hulu original, has been stirring up conversation and positive reviews. The show, produced by J.J. Abrams and Stephen King, stars James Franco as Jake Epping/James Amberson, a time-traveller who is determined to go back in time to prevent JFK’s assassination in honor of his old friend Al. Unlike Netflix originals, “11.22.63” does not follow the binge-watching phenomenon, as it released weekly episodes starting on Feb. 15.

While it is one of the shortest, “11.22.63” is definitely one of the best political dramas in the mix. From the enticing opening sequence, that features a yarn of red string calculatedly connecting to different pieces of evidence in the Kennedy assassination. James Franco delivers an emotional performance as the protagonist, and the setting and costumes of the 1960s decade are simply breath taking.

It is sad to see this as a limited series that served its purpose, but in its eight hour-long episodes, it provided a variety of fans with everything they could have possibly asked for: action, suspense, romance, non-fiction, science fiction and even some comedic relief.

It is possible to say that all of these political dramas are gaining particular significance on a time like today, where the U.S. is preparing for presidential elections in November. The fourth season of “House of Cards,” for instance, showcased excerpts of real news coverage of current events in politics, making it relevant to its time. While the other two series do not share the same degree of relevance, by fault of being set in the past, they still attract viewers because the theme of politics is controversial, exciting and timeless.

Combine that with the appeal of a streaming service and you hit the jackpot. Streaming television series and movies from the comfort of your own home is not only convenient because you have entertainment at your fingertips, but also because you can re-watch episodes, watch entire seasons without necessarily waiting long and all for a limited monthly cost. It is portable entertainment that you can take anywhere and counts with little to no advertisements, ultimately increasing user experience

According to Netflix research, allowing users to view all episodes at once by releasing an entire season increases views and user satisfaction.

But what do all of these series have in common other than being political dramas original to streaming services? They can entice an audience through the intelligent strategy of gender bending. All three continuously cross the fine lines between fiction and non-fiction appealing to history buffs and the fantasy lovers. They are also action packed and, at times, very gory, but count with romantic storylines that can please a female population.

Even trailers are set to satisfy each specific customer through the power of Big Data. Netflix gathered user information to elaborate different versions of the “House of Cards” trailer, which would be shown accordingly depending on the user’s recorded genre preferences and top shows.

Season four, for instance, was promoted with a couple of trailers: one that focused on a message by Frank Underwood while cutting back to his darkest moments on the show and the other that also showed a message by Underwood but abstained from the violent murder snapshots and flashbacks.

It is important to acknowledge that yes, these shows place viewers in different political scenes, exploring the past and the present, reality and fantasy, and both an inside and outside U.S. experience.

However, while these series do present differences, mainly the fact that Hulu does not jump on the binge-watch bandwagon and follows a more traditional weekly distribution, they essentially use the same strategies to lure in viewers. And they are pretty great at doing so.

  • Series: “House of Cards”
  • Genre: Political Drama
  • Date of release: Feb. 1, 2013
  • Seasons: Four (Season Five just announced to premiere in 2017)
  • Episodes: 52
  • Running Time: 43-59 minutes
  • Availability: Netflix
  • Starring: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara
  • MPAA Rating: TV-MA
  • Personal Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
  • Series: “Narcos”
  • Genre: Crime Thriller/Drama
  • Date of release: Aug. 28, 2015
  • Seasons: One (Season Two to premiere in 2016)
  • Episodes: 10
  • Running Time: 43-57 minutes
  • Availability: Netflix
  • Starring: Wagner Moura, Boyd Holbrook, Pedro Pascal
  • MPAA Rating: TV-MA
  • Personal Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
  • Series: “11.22.63”
  • Genre: Science Fiction/Thriller/Drama
  • Date of release: Feb. 15, 2016
  • Seasons: One (limited series)
  • Episodes: 8
  • Running Time: 54-81 minutes
  • Availability: Hulu
  • Starring: James Franco, Chris Cooper, Sarah Gadon
  • MPAA Rating: TV-MA
  • Personal Rating: 5 out of 5 stars