Last summer, I wrote that when Arrested Development returns to Netflix this spring, I’d call in sick so that I could marathon the entire season. Today’s premiere of House of Cards, therefore, was an opportunity to rehearse that experience — a much darker, moodier, Kevin Spacey-er rehearsal.
House of Cards, created for Netflix by Beau Willimon and David Fincher, is an adaptation of the British novel and miniseries of the same name, with Kevin Spacey starring as the manipulative Francis Underwood. It has a solid cast, premium cable production quality, and plenty of political intrigue to play out over the first 13 episodes, which went live at midnight Friday.
And as soon as it went live, I started watching. I made it through the first two episodes last night, then fell asleep around 2:30 AM watching Chapter 3, which I then resumed watching around 7:30 AM. Over the following five and a half hours, I was able to get to the beginning of Chapter 9, then took a two-hour break to run some errands and remember what fresh air smelled like.
By 6:30 PM, nearly 18 hours later, I’d consumed the entire first season, all 13 episodes. It was a pretty long day.
Complicated, grim, nasty and engaging
I’ve marathoned television before — in fact, Netflix’s recent acquisition of The West Wing has been a major obstacle in my productivity lately — but usually I know what kind of show I’m in for. So the first part of the experience was discovering that House of Cards was complicated, grim and alternately nasty and engaging. Kevin Spacey goes full-on anti-hero, while Robin Wright, as his chilly wife Claire, proves to be his equal. Spending a day in their world was intense.
The big thing I feel about binge-viewing is that it makes you conscious of what parts of the show really engage you. Chapter 8 was an interesting episode from a number of perspectives: Just past the halfway point in the season, the episode focuses on Spacey paying a visit to his alma mater for a library dedication; most of the action is devoted to Underwood and his old school friends paling around.
It makes for a nice calm before the storm — however, Kate Mara’s reporter character doesn’t show up at all in Chapter 8, which is disappointing because the twisted relationship between her and Spacey, I felt, lead to some of the show’s most fascinating scenes. Chapter 8, in which they don’t interact at all, was disappointing from that respect.
Fortunately, instead of waiting a week for a new episode to address that, I just had to queue up the next episode. Which was convenient. And then, the back half the season really takes off: Chapters 9, 10, and 11 each end with solid cliffhangers, and the show settles into a nice momentum up to the finale.
Binging doesn’t give you time to mull things over
However, the consequence of that momentum might be a loss of nuance. There are many elements I feel I didn’t comprehend as well as I might have, because of marathoning the show: It makes you conscious of the fact that with conventional dramas like Homeland and Game of Thrones, waiting a week between episodes creates an opportunity to mull over storylines that might get drowned out by bigger events.
For example, there’s a subplot involving Robin Wright’s growing interest in origami that doesn’t really affect the major plot at all, except when serving as punctuation in a couple of key scenes.
The origami thing lead to some intriguing character moments, but the only reason I remembered that it happened, at the end of the day, was because I’d made a note about it. The big events of the show stand out clearly in my head, but if I were to go back later and rewatch at a slower pace, I’m sure I’d discover new details.
Watched all at once, also, meant that things like the heavy product placement for Apple products and Sony video games stood out distinctly.
A game-changer, or just too dark?
Not only did Netflix publicly announce at midnight that the show was live, but throughout the day it encouraged viewers to marathon the show — cheering them on via both the Netflix and House of Cards Twitter accounts.
It's okay if you called in sick today. #HouseOfCards—
House of Cards (@HouseofCards) February 01, 2013
People have called the series a game-changer for Netflix, the subscription service’s equivalent to AMC’s Mad Men or HBO’s The Sopranos. But I’m not convinced that substituting the buzz that those shows acquire over the course of a season for the buzz of binge-viewing will pay off. It’s hard to watch television this way. Especially a show as dark and serious as House of Cards is.
If it wasn’t for the challenge of the assignment, to be honest, I don’t think I’d have gulped down House of Cards in a day. It’s heavy stuff, without much levity, and as mentioned above I think there are elements of it that I would have enjoyed more with a little distance and time.
That said, as the credits rolled on Episode 13, this was my first thought: “When does Season 2 start?”
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