The Golden Age Of Binging
That would seem to be a contradiction in terms, but it absolutely describes what happened last weekend, when Netflix unleashed all 13 episodes of Season Two of “House of Cards.”
The scheduling of the Valentine’s release, on the Friday evening leading into President’s Weekend, was diabolically clever, almost like something from the fevered brain of Frank Underwood himself. (For those not watching, he’s the sociopathic vice president/lead character played by Kevin Spacey.)
Even the weather played into Netflix’s (figuratively) moustache-twirling hands. A day earlier, crippling storms in the East caused jonesing, snowed-in politicos to demand early access to the stuff, via tweets. (Who do they think they are, Frank Underwood?)
President Obama has publicly praised Underwood’s “ruthless efficiency” (that’s pretty scary in itself.) He tweeted that he was waiting for the Friday release, requesting that the rest of us behave, and “no spoilers, please.”
I was late to the game, and used the weekend to binge on all of Season One. But back to the original oxymoron: with no good movies being released, aforementioned lousy weather, a day off looming, lots of social media buzz and huge pent-up demand, part of the country was acting very much in viewer unison.
Indeed, like mid-20th century Americans whose heads were simultaneously exploding while meeting the Beatles on Ed Sullivan on Sunday night, Feb. 9, 1964, “HOC” gorgers were all watching the same thing at the same time. Except, paradoxically, at a time when no one has free time and everything is sped up, now we were watching all weekend.
And isn’t the point of the brilliant new business model -- with which Netflix CEO Reed Hastings resurrected the company two years ago -- based on the disruptive idea of no schedules and no waiting?
But there are lots of contradictions surrounding “House of Cards,” in both the delivery and content. I streamed it over my laptop, which meant that I didn’t even have to press “next.” Each episode flowed automatically.
And I was happy to be carried along on that wave. First of all, it’s about devouring a new form of immersive and stimulating long-form storytelling, you tell yourself. Hence, you are not some lazy couch potato (wow, what an antique term). Instead, you think that since you actually scheduled this with intent, you are some sort of auteur, watching with tremendous focus and finding your place in the new pop cultural landscape.
(Obligatory mention of shows like "Breaking Bad," "The Wire" and "Mad Men" replacing the great American novel -- or even achieving the sweeping, timeless genius of Shakespeare in their understanding of the car-wrecky human condition -- goes here.)
I loved “House of Cards”: the topnotch production values, and the bravura performances of Spacey and Robin Wright (who, paradoxically, is now far more famous than her ex, Sean Penn). She is a dazzling, mesmerizing presence on screen; my fascination with her includes staring at that odd hollow in her neck, a perfect circle above the clavicle, so unique that it should have its own Twitter following.
I felt triumphant after finishing the first season and catching up with everyone else to get to the opener of the second season. And boy, did that not disappoint! It was shocking and brilliant, with the best ending ever: a big FU to viewers!
(That started me thinking about the name Underwood, like “underhanded.” He’s an old-time pol, a Southern Democrat, in a tradition as old as an Underwood typewriter. And his given name is Francis, or Frank, like Sinatra. Indeed, Spacey is hardly a hunk, but he does embody a bit of throwback, Rat Pack-era vibe, especially when he breaks the fourth wall and speaks to us with that evil twinkle.)
Actually, that first episode was so great that I didn’t even have time to digest all the layers before I started watching the rest of the second season. And in rapid fire, those episodes started feeling too hammy, over-the-top, and even boring, for me to keep going.
I also soured on the characters. There’s a limit to how much pure evil I could take. Is everyone a sociopath, with no one to root for? The journalism was getting ridiculous, and that incident with the white powder was really clunky.
Particularly troublesome is Frank and Claire’s relationship. She’s a tremendously interesting character, but has a shockingly cold heart. Is everything between them a business transaction, based on power and control?
My own experience went from binge-watching to hate-watching. (Sort of.) And nothing could cover up the fact that whichever modern, ad-free, recap-free, enlightened and streaming way I was consuming it, I spent my weekend watching too much TV.
I guess oxymoron is the new black.
Speaking of which, watching “Orange is the New Black” from beginning to end is my next plan of attack.
Then I’m going back to “HOC.” Am I hooked on the perversity?
More like, to quote the very dark and contradictory artist Woody Allen, telling the old joke about the guy who's ultimately in tune with the brother who thinks he's a chicken: “I need the eggs.”
Let’s say “the eggs” mean being part of the latest cultural currency. Netflix has gone from just mailing out red paper envelopes to being a provider of that
And as some relationship statuses on Facebook reflect, it's complicated.