Downton Abbey v House of Cards

Computer keyboard with positive and negative keys, three-dimensional rendering

Entertainment media was abuzz this weekend about the end of one popular series and the next installment of another. After six seasons, loose ends were neatly wrapped up for the British upstairs – downstairs crowd at Downton Abbey. A few hours earlier, Netflix offered up another round of U.S. political intrigue in the form of a fourth season of House of Cards. (The original House of Cards was a shorter production about UK politics that debuted in 1990.)

While both shows interweave complex plots that involve a large cast of characters, the material is by far darker in the case of House of Cards. Indeed, some might find it difficult to identify anything remotely redeeming about its protagonists, Frank and Claire Underwood. Yet we watch. Last April, Time Magazine reported that viewership of the first three seasons of House of Cards made it the most popular series that spring on Netflix. Interestingly, Kevin Spacey and his production partner, Dana Brunetti, recently agreed with Fox to co-create a series about those families that have lived at the White House and the staff. Hollywood Reporter bills it as a cross between Downton Abbey and House of Cards. (You can’t make this stuff up.)

Opinions vary when it comes to whether evil or goodness can generate audience loyalty. Television comedy writer Ken Levine suggests that truly despicable characters are unlikely to garner meaningful network ratings unless they are layered and interesting enough to “create drama and suspense…surprise us.” Compared to Downton Abbey’s sometimes naughty, sometimes amiable Anna, Robin Wright’s “portrayal of Claire Underwood is chilling and mesmerizing.” On the other hand, Hallmark‘s “sugar and spice” television activities resulted in a “huge increase in its profits the last quarter of 2014.”

Obviously demographics and timing play a role in what people read and watch. During a recent discussion with an experienced literary agent, he said that an author should think of a publisher as a venture capitalist who is trying to predict the next best thing. It’s not an easy task. Famed writer Barbara Kingsolver said “Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you: figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”