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Binge-viewing Netflix’s House of Cards: I just had a very long day of drama

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?”

41 Responses to “Binge-viewing Netflix’s House of Cards: I just had a very long day of drama”

  1. Melanie W

    Yes, when does season 2 start! I love the “binge viewing” method of watching a series, and beleive I get more out of it without the lag time between airing. The only downside is the withdrawl…what can possibly replace it? Regurlary scheduled television is paling in comparison.

  2. Of the two lead parts of the story – Netflix “original content” and “binge-viewing”- the former feels more meaningful as it signals yet another distribution channel coming to the realization that you can “cut-the-cord”, but without great content it’s all meaningless. On the binge viewing front, clearly a smart promotional tactic and the obvious evolution of what viewers have been doing since as far back as the release of the Soprano’s Season One box set. Oh, a pretty good show, too!

  3. Binge-viewing is all I ever do. It started with whole seasons of televisions series on DVD, then I graduated to Netflix. If I don’t have to wait a week for the next episode, why should I? I never watch broadcast televisions now. I wait until shows are available in entire seasons, and I watch them all at once. And if I miss the nuances, it’s ok. I watch most things more than once.

  4. tallsixfttwo

    my goodness house of cards was so engaging. the music, twists and turns and the tension in between made my heart skip several beats and the world of fiction intrude into my real life. if there was a word to describe this confluence of emotion, drama and thrill, i certainly want to know.

  5. I mainlined it in three sittings over three days. A decent pace, and more tempered than others I’ve ingested on Netflix. I completely agree that this is the way of TV. In fact I absolutely refuse to watch a series until the whole season is out, and I refuse to watch any TV with commercials. I tried Hulu and cancelled it immediately.
    So now I’ve consumed every season of Fringe, BSG, Dr Who, Torchwood, Earth 2, Heroes, Alias, SGU, Dresden Files, Lost Girl, Nikita. Jericho, Enterprise, and Voyager. And I must say, with so much drama in my brain I was feeling overwhelmed and ready for a long media fast. But the first episode of House of Cards got me hooked again like Peter’s full blown relapse. And it was awesome. And like a relapse I’m now hung over, searching for another fix when I should be making amends with my patient dog and getting some sun. So we’ll see… It’s going to take something EPIC to hook me again. Like next season’s House of Cards binge.

  6. the main thrust plot, and the way it structures subplots, is almost identical to Boss. but Francis Underwood is more interesting, more nuanced than Tom Kane. Underwood talks to the camera about the future and how to game it; Kane talks to his hallucinations about the past and his regrets

  7. JohnFred

    I have mixed feelings about watching the Netflix version. I really enjoyed the original series and I am doubtful that all the deliciousness of the British intrique and treachery will be handled as well in an American context despite an excellent cast. I like the freedom however to watch more than one episode at a time.

  8. John Willkie

    I certainly didn’t see $7,000,000 in production costs per episode, and the use of non-prime DC locations to substitute for things like Capitol hill was anachronistic. That aside, it’s a good series. But, I want to watch the second season next friday.

  9. Isaac Riley Davis

    I’m addicted. I mean seriously when does season 2 start. I have to know what happens its borderline torture with the amount of storylines they left open ended.

  10. Binged my weekend away and loved every second of it. Whether that’s because of the dynamic force that is Kevin Spacey, the clinical detachment of Robin Wright, or the opportunistic sexual intrigue that Kate Mara deploys I don’t know. All I know is I can’t wait for season two…..

  11. Over the course of the weekend I have watched the entire season, it was addicting and very satisfying. Some curves you saw coming straight on when others caught you off guard. The acting was great but it gives a strange reality to what we look at in modern American Politics, I know this is a drama and should be judged as one but one has to ask how many times does strong arming people like Frank Underwood character actually do what he did. It was a very powerful series and I look very much forward to the next season, I hope it is on the books already.

  12. I too devoured all 13 episodes. 1-4 until 2 am, then up to 6 by the pool the next morning, at which time I made my family starts watching. We did until 11pm. Insane.

    Seems like a great way to get people hooked for the next season. Like Downton Abbey, we are made to wait. But we don’t like to wait. We want it now.

    While I loved every minute, I am not sure I will tune in a year from now. If it came out now, they would have me for life.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. David Aldous

    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.

  16. Will Slowenski

    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.

  17. Akin Williams

    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.

    • David Aldous

      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

  18. 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

    • 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.

  19. Steve Lake

    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!

  20. 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!

  21. 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.