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Summary:

Netflix’s got a unique approach to distributing its original content: Post all the episodes at once, then encourage the audience to mainline it. But what’s the actual experience of binge-viewing like? This reporter boldly investigates.

houseofcards

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.

HOUSE OF CARDSAnd 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.

HOUSE OF CARDSIt 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 of 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.

HOUSE OF CARDSFor 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.

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?”

  1. When you referred to Game of Thrones and Homeland as conventional, I know that you were referring to release dates, but it stuck in my mind…as a surprisingly conventional production. The constant musical drum beat and overwrought characters remind me of solid network television programing. As a Netflix drama with fantastic actors, this show could have gone in so many different directions. As it stands, the show is an updated West Wing. Bravo Netflix.

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  2. I saw this on Netflix last night and was immediately intrigued, however not intrigued enough to delve into a full blown flix marathon. After reading your blog you have changed my mind – I will move forward full steam into “A house of cards” marathon. After all who doesn’t love Kevin Spacey. Thank you!

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  3. did the same thing and got totally immersed. I think you are right about the loss of some time to mull – but immersion is interesting too. My overnight break had me desperately wanting more and found my allegiances shifting and questioning my own morality at times. Good drama! As you say – need season 2 now!

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    1. I’m pissed they killed off Pete.

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  4. Wait??? Why Wait?

    I don’t have to!! Ha Ha :OP

    I consumed the whole thing whole baby!!!

    A nice snack between my down time of my main AMC show.

    Here’s hope Mr. Underwood gets what he deserves.

    I can hope can’t I :O)

    Chizzy Marathon Queen

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    1. Actually I think it would be more interesting if he get’s away with it all. But I’m thinking the answer to how it ends may lie in the original BBC version, the American version has stayed quite close to the original storyline.

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  5. there is no such thing as the loss of the opportunity to mull. you mull if you wanna mull, you binge if you wanna binge. netflix is giving us the freedom to choose, rather than being held hostage to tv’s evil practice of making you wait for a week till next Friday’s primetime.

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  6. I didn’t expect all 13 episodes to be immediately available so I found myself pleasantly drawn in to the series. I did have to break my marathon into two separate viewings of 6/7 episodes as a result of the need for sleep but I was pleasantly awakened by the thought of a half-series of Spacey to breakfast on.
    I don’t feel like it is a game-changer, just a very entertaining and occasionally over-paced delight of a political drama.
    One observation that raised the stock of the series in my opinion was its usage of the 4th wall, or rather, it’s declining usage as the season progressed.

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    1. When mentioning ‘The forth wall’, rather than bring clever, why don’t you explain what the forth wall is? And for your information, the original and British ‘House of Cards’, used this technique back in the 1990.s
      For anyone who doesn’t know, The Forth Wall invites the audience in. I quote, ” Speaking directly to or otherwise acknowledging the audience through the camera in a film or television program, or through this imaginary wall in a play, is referred to as “breaking the fourth wall” and is considered a technique of metafiction, as it penetrates the boundaries normally set up by works of fiction

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    2. When mentioning “The Fourth Wall”, rather than being moronic, why don’t you spell it correctly?

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      1. “Comment of the Week” award goes to Sam…..and it’s only Monday !!!!! ;-)

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  7. I went into House of Cards thinking I would watch an episode every few days with my fiance until we finished the first season together. What I found out is that after she had decided to go to bed I watched the rest of the season in one shot. I was so engrossed in the show that I completely lost track of time and when I emerged from my basement after it was all over I found that I had missed the entire night. I am more than okay with that. Netflix releasing this show all at once gave me the chance to watch it as a I like. I am thankful that I did not have to wait a whole week after each episode and I think that I was drawn farther into the story because I didn’t. The only disappointment is that now we will have to wait a year until they release the next season. This show is just as good as the original House of Cards, West Wing or Newsroom. Kevin Spacey seems like he was tailor made for this role. I am a complete fan who will be impatiently waiting for the next season. Good thing Netflix can fill me up with Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who until then.

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  8. I have just this second finished the entire season in one go. It was nothing short of a triumph. Having seen the original from the UK written by Michael Dobbs, I was fully expectant of a re-itteration of that original show albeit from the American point of view rather than using the same story line Dobbs had originality written. I note that he was also an exec producer of this show.
    All I can say is Well done Netflix bring it on. Totally captivating TV.

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  9. It pales in comparison to the original series. If you want to see a really good series, not just another copy, watch Ian Richardson command the nation. That’s what real governing is all about.

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    1. While I love the original, I don’t think its fair to call this a “copy”. Its very clearly a distinct version.

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  10. I watched all of them back to back and I relished every episode. Like yourself all I can wonder is when I’ll get the chance to see Season 2. No matter. While I wait I’ll watch the BBC original version of house of cards on Netflix.

    As for “binge watching” I watched Portlandia and Battlestar Galactica the same way. I quite enjoy it.

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    1. Dave Hunter Anderson Wednesday, February 6, 2013

      That battlestar Galactica sketch on Portlandia was the greatest thing ever.

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