Binge watching Netflix's House of Cards: The joys of watching TV like reading a great book
It sounded so odd, I waited a day or so to tell anyone outside my family.
But I watched all 13 episodes of Netflix's new original series House of Cards within one day of the series' release, plopping down on the living room couch Friday night and much of Saturday for a marathon session which left me with the urge to mimic the mesmerizing, silky Southern patios of Kevin Spacey's cagey antihero, corrupt South Carolina Congressman Francis "Frank" Underwood.
It's taken much longer to process what I've seen. Like speed-reading through a book with a spellbinding plot, binge-watching House of Cards leads to inhaling the big moments with an eye to where this is all going. Underwood is special kind of snake, manipulative enough to turn being passed over by the President for a position as Secretary of State into a much larger gambit with a tremendous prize as reward.
Turing to the audience every so often to explain his manipulations, Underwood transforms us all into secret, all-knowing accomplices, reveling in the joy of watching a man so good at being bad get exactly what he wants (the often-underestimated Robin Wright, who plays Underwood's wife Claire, provides a graphic demonstration to a male admirer how this is exactly the quality which drew her to him; explaining their odd partnership with a sex-charged flourish.)
But the great triumph of Cards is that, just as we tool along, savoring Underwood's victories the same way we cheered J.R. Ewing and Tony Soprano, the series flips the script on us, turning Underwood from an antihero to villain. Suddenly, in a single act, we are transformed from a silent cheering section, admiring how Underwood outmaneuvers the petty politicians surrounding him, to a contemptuous chorus, wondering right along with the good Congressman how things got so messy so fast.
Against this backdrop, is a telling commentary on the struggles of journalism in the modern age. As the series begins, Underwood cultivates a relationship with a young journalist, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), who is presented as the typical young reporter in today's political thrillers -- tech-savvy, impatient with journalism convention and secretly dependent on the tips fed her by the controlling Underwood.
Watching Barnes resist the controlling hand of an editor who refuses to understand how much the new media structure has usurped his authority and influence, I was prepared for another predictable cautionary tale on the vapidity of today's social media-fueled news cycles.
But as the series progresses -- and Barnes' relationship with Underwood gets more, um, intimate -- we see the value in the old school journalism world she left behind. By the final episodes of this first season, old school journalism instincts and new school immediacy begin an alliance which threatens to expose all of Underwood's machinations just he is positioned to seize his greatest triumph.
If all of this reads as painfully obtuse, then blame Netflix itself. Not only has the company redefined TV watching in this bold experiment -- I compare it to paging through a good book, sitting on the shelf whenever you have time and desire -- it has redefined the nature of a TV spoiler.
True enough, all 13 episodes of Cards are available for anyone to see, as of Friday. But no one besides manic TV critics and obsessive Wikipedia editors (yes, the whole first season's plot is already written there) can really be expected to see them all in a few days' time.
Which will create a crisis for critics and TV fans everywhere; when is the right time to share important details, such as Underwood's real goals, the ultimate fate of ambitious, alcoholic Rep. Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) and wife Claire's conflicting loyalties? A week? A month? A year?
Netflix's strategy of not releasing any information on its streaming levels may also work against its series. One time-tested way of building audience is by convincing potential viewers that lots of other people are watching it, too. Absent data on how many subscribers are watching this series and for how long, its game changing impact may be muted.
This is a series which makes high drama of an education bill passage and preparations for a charity ball, so it's not for everyone. And even after devouring the first 13 episodes of its 26-installment run, I was hungry for more and a little unsatisfied -- a sure sign of a story built too much on plot developments and not enough on subtler themes.
Still, House of Cards achieved for me what Netflix likely intended; I can't wait for the next season, I'm eagerly awaiting the next new series they have planned (especially the Arrested Development resurrection) and my opinion of their service has risen several notches.
The TV revolution has begun. And it's coming in 13-episode chunks.