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.
Nice article. My teenage son is a binge viewer and my wife binges on some. But I have come to hate it. I find tremendous satisfaction in the delay between episodes - letting the prior episode sink in, thinking about what might happen next, and getting a break from the intensity. I know I'm in a minority. But when I've had a great meal watching something, I find satisfaction giving it time to digest.
A few comments. First, the American version of "House of Cards" can't touch the hem of the garment of the British version. Kevin Spacey is a great actor, but he is no Ian Richardson. We bailed about halfway through Season 1 of the American series as it became more about shock value than anything else. Second, I couldn't watch more than two or three episodes of "The Wire" at a time because of it's incredible richness and intensity. I think it's great to anticipate what's next. That's why Americans used to wait at the docks for the next installment of Dickens. Finally, some unconventional binge watching options. "Prisoners of War" (the Israeli series on which "Homeland" was based) available on Hulu. Then, on Netflix, the British "Gavin and Stacey." James Corden is a complete and total delight as is Rob Brydon.
Disagree about the Brit version. Ian Richardson, while very good in most situations, seemed out of place in his efforts to feign amour. The best thing about the Brit version is that the U.S. version seems to follow it well and improve things such as the subway push instead of a rooftop push. I recently watched eight seasons of Dexter--uninterrupted by watching anything else except sports and news. Not quite bingeing, but it is truly the only series in history to wait to the last episode to jump the shark.
Only "binging" vicariously through friends posts. Have not seen any of the above-referenced shows.
(First time "binging" has taken on a positive cast) IMHO
i have been binging on House of Cards like an obese person with ice cream..watching hours and hours in secret..then acting like i was doing something else. i need to know more than the old National Enquirer readers...when characters are so well drawn or the story so interesting, knowing there is still another unwatched episode is too much to turn off. and by the way, i finished a few pints of Ben and Jerry's while watching
Barbara. House of Cards is still on my list and it may be this weekend's binging, especially after reading your article. But I can't wait for you to watch Orange is the New Black and write about it. It has an amazing cast of characters and was my binge after finishing Breaking Bad! So hurry up!
I'm with Claudia here. The original was more unique in that Ian Richardson was so slimy, his unexpected pulling of the younger woman was what made it weirder. And Tom, I can't believe you only interrupted Dexter for sports and news... What, no Martinis? As for Barbara... What is this obsession with Robin Wright's neck???
@George: Did you see her upper clavicle? It's like nothing found in nature.
Right on about Robin Wright's delightfully-shaped clavicle. I think it's probably insured by Lloyds...and it seems to get only more shapely with age (who remembers it in Forest Gump?)
As for the show itself, did anyone else think it jumped the shark (or 3rd rail!) at the end of the new season's first episode?
The fact that something so unbelievable could serve as the McGuffin for the rest of the season does indeed make the show ham-handed and over-the-top.
Every time I read a Barbara LIppert piece, I find myself so buzzed by her analysis and observations that I go back and re-watch whatever show or episode it is she's writing about. Now I have to check out Wright's clavicle.
Feel the same about Barbara...loved/looked forward to Adweek because of her like i really looked forward to the NY Times because of Anna Quindlen.
aww, thanks so much lisa and cliff!
"House of Cards" S2 was the first binge I watched; I usually do no more than one or two a night, usually one. But I blew through the last five episodes in a day and felt it was too much; the increasingly ridiculous plot twists coming at you one after the other. It probably would've been better to digest them in smaller amounts.