Tuned In

House of Cards Watch: I Ate the Whole Thing

I went through 13 episodes in a week. Did it hold up to my original review? (Yes, no, and yes.) And when will there be a critical mass of viewers ready to discuss?

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Melinda Sue Gordon / Netflix

Kevin Spacey in House of Cards

Spoilers for the full first season of Netflix’s House of Cards follow:

Are you ready to read a review of House of Cards?

That’s not a rhetorical question. Are you? I honestly have no idea. One of the many interesting unknowns about Netflix’s move of releasing a 13-episode series all in one day was that some of the audience could conceivably have finished the entire thing within ten hours and change of its posting. Others might be finishing this week. Others, in three or four months.

What’s the average? The median? The mode? We have no clue—Netflix is not sharing much data—and thus, no clue when there will actually be a critical mass of fans ready to discuss House of Cards. The review I posted last week, based on two advance episodes, was, within a few hours of the show’s posting, dated for some viewers. But had I marathoned the season, finished it before the Super Bowl, and posted a second review, I’m not sure many Tuned Inlanders would have been ready to look at it and have a conversation.

I didn’t marathon the show, but I have the advantage of being able to watch TV on the job. (Of course, I also have two kids, so some of you may have beat me, with the superior advantage of having a lot more free time on the weekend.) So I finally finished, not so much in a binge as in a week of heavy eating.

Not knowing when you all will finish, I’m going to forego a second, full review and instead just post some bulleted, general thoughts below. Read them now, or bookmark this page and come back in a few months. Let us know what you thought of House of Cards–but also, let us know how you watched it:

* The big question, I guess, is: did I like the show as much as I did in my initial review? I did. Then I didn’t. Then I did again. After a strong introduction to Frank Underwood through his Secretary of State vendetta, the show veered absurd with the story of the yonic water tower and even the teachers’ strike. (That conflict had potential, but I found it hard to buy the way it played out: the supremely assured Frank’s Porky-Pig meltdown on CNN, the transparently opportunistic pinning of the child’s murder on the strike, the way it was all resolved by one provoked punch.) But it turned back around with the Russo campaign and Frank’s triple-bank-shot pursuit of the VPOTUS spot. (That was far-fetched too, but satisfyingly so, because it depended on Frank’s matching wits with an antagonist who was close to his peer.)

* Did “airing” a full season at once on Netflix yield any creative benefits? One big one, I think: it allowed the show to choose its own pace. Even many of the best drama series on cable–Homeland, Breaking Bad–depend on a constant raising of stakes and heightening of jeopardy to keep viewers coming back. Some don’t, and suffer for it in the ratings, like Treme.) Weekly TV is the slave of intensity—the cliffhanger, the double-twist, the surprising reveal. House of Cards took half its season to shift into true politico-thriller mode, which might have exhausted some viewers’ patience if they watched one episode a week. With the full season available, HoC was free to develop its story on its own timetable.

* That said, for all the talk of House of Cards being revolutionary–not just because of Netflix but because filmmaker David Fincher would not be constrained by the usual TV way of doing business–it is otherwise very much a TV show. It looks like one, though a very glossy one. Its episodes are the length of pay-cable episodes. But more than that, it’s structured like a TV series: it has a season arc, mini arcs (like the Russo run for governor and the teachers’ strike), and stories that resolved in one episode. If the Netflix model is truly going to reinvent TV narrative, it hasn’t happened yet.

* The monologues: I found them distracting at first. By the end of the second episode, I came around: I liked how they allowed Spacey to flex his mouth muscles and bring the viewer into Frank’s confidence. By the end of the season I was back to disliking them—or, at least to feeling they were often badly used. Too many times Frank would spell out loud thoughts that were either obvious or would have been more powerful implied through subtext. (For instance, when Frank is about to raise the idea of the VP running for Pennsylvania governor to clear a path for himself: “Everything hinges on the next few minutes. All my months of planning. Every move I’ve made.” Of course it does. We just watched ten episodes of the series.) At other times, he’d withhold information for seemingly no other reason than to maintain suspense.

* Side effect of watching: Craving ribs, all the time.

* I suppose one could nitpick the politics of the show. (I won’t fall into the journalist-nitpicks-the-journalism-story trap.) But I liked that the political controversies involved policy, slightly wonky policy issues that people would actually fight over in real life–collective bargaining, vouchers, redistricting, energy exploration and watersheds. (Watersheds!) And I liked the decision to set the show amid one-party control, a la 2009, not for any partisan reasons but because internecine party conflicts fit the tone of the drama: what better for a show about narcissists than the narcissism of small differences?

* Another benefit of getting to watch HoC quickly: it makes it easier to pick up on recurrent themes and images, as you would when reading a novel. There are the recurrent images of boats and water, most obviously, and when Frank smooth-talks Peter to his death in the parking garage, the opening scene comes back to mind: he seems, more than anything, like an owner putting a dog to sleep.

* Starz’s political drama Boss was notorious for having a lot of “because it’s pay cable” sex, its characters slipping off to have hot, dangerous trysts in any available stairwell or office. House of Cards, on the other hand, had sex, but it was almost universally severe and un-hot–purposely so, it seems. “Why do you need this?” Zoe asked Frank at one point. You certainly don’t seem to get any pleasure out of this. I know I don’t.” His answer–that sex for him is power–makes character sense, given that you get little sense that he has a hard-on for much beyond an Executive Branch office.

* Speaking of which, I do wish the series did better by its female characters. Kate Mara makes Zoe’s professional hunger so real I felt my own stomach rumble, but I’d like to see a political story about a woman reporter that doesn’t depend on whom she’s sleeping with. Claire, meanwhile, drew on political-wife clichés too, but the story at least gave them some life by combining them: she managed to be the icy, complicit ally and the wounded, betrayed spouse at the same time.

* And while I’m grousing: President Walker is really a zero, isn’t he? At first I thought HoC would go the Veep route and have the President be a distant, absent figure: talked about but never seen, his gravity only implied by the characters who orbit around him. But then he became a presence–a really dull presence. If the show suggested that he was an inspirational blank slate, charismatic but without much upstairs, that would be something. As it was, much as in Political Animals, I was left wondering why exactly this guy won the election.

* For all that, it was solid and compelling, and I watched it in a week although, strictly speaking, I wasn’t assigned to. It really hit its stride in the last run of episodes–in part, I think, because it was refreshing to see Frank square off against Gerald McRaney’s nuke tycoon, a worthy adversary from another world not susceptible to the Washington threat-and-reward system. By the end, I thought that House of Cards had become the thriller it promised to be–just in time to end and leave me wanting more.

* Now, if HoC had aired on, say, Showtime, and I didn’t have the option of watching one after the other, would I have stuck it out that long? I have no way of knowing. It was a very good, absorbing, mature, well-executed drama, but hardly innovative in story, format or characters. I’m looking forward to season 2. But I’m not sure there are any lines I’ll quote, or scenes that will pop unbidden to mind, between now and then. In the end, the most remarkable thing about House of Cards wasn’t what we saw but how we saw it.

27 comments
Squidy
Squidy

Johan Liedgren sums it up: 'A well written Machiavellian political drama is always welcome. West Wing meets Django. Noteworthy are the raw and potent female characters - chiefly Robin Wright / Princess Bride, all grown up. A rare marital intimacy with Kevin Spacey anchored in shared ruthless ambition, she is more the childless tiger mom, than nurturing wife.' http://taleandcompany.tumblr.com/

xiaodre
xiaodre

uninspired review - it's not that remarkable to me that it was viewed one after another, or by individual consumer choice.  I watched the majority of series that way for the last 10 years, as have many others.  Which Netflix says actually inspired this release change.  So I must ask, why would that be remarkable to a TV critic?  In the show the Washington Herald is going under and they don't seem to understand why, and they can't seem to fix it.  I have no doubt you are a capable writer, and yet, this review smacks of that overarching cluelessness.  Sorry bud.  I mean no offense, just trying to call it like I see it.

prestonr
prestonr

Does anyone care to discuss the ineptitude of half the cast in their acting skills? I couldn't get over Robin Wright's weird syllable-spacing in her role as Claire Underwood. People don't talk like that robotically in real life and she lacked any believability because she was so awkwardly stiff. Then Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes wasn't much for acting either, especially at first. She grew on me as the season progressed, but not by much. It seems that she's also caught Wright's stiffness bug. And then let's talk about how Kevin Spacey was not at all at the top of his game here. He had a lot of trouble staying in his South Carolina drawl and often switched back to his "Kevin Spacey" accent. To his credit, this is probably a tough role because it requires a mixture of Southern (an attribute well-known for its warmth and hospitality) countered with iciness. Those two qualities are very difficult to mix, especially if you're topping it off with a Southern accent; so I understand Spacey's dilemma. Nevertheless, I expected more out of Spacey and was a little disappointed when he didn't quite deliver.

gadgetguy
gadgetguy

Compelling - addictive,  watched 13 episodes in 48 hours, hunger for more, but not clear on reason for sex scene in episode 7 ( Francis and Zoe) I don't think being so explicit was as compelling as having a scene that may have left more to the veiwers imagination, but then this is a mature show, and standard are lower

KristyCarruba
KristyCarruba

I watched all 13 episodes in a week.  I agree with most of your review except I really felt that Robin Wright's character was very interesting and she was superb.  I thought Kevin Spacey was great too.  Sure there's  a lot of political stuff where the bow is just tied oh so perfectly at some points, but I think when you watch it all so fast you can pick at those types of things so much easier then if they were seperated by the traditional weeks time.  

I do find this experiment interesting but as a TV lunatic it's hard to NOT be able to talk to people about the weeks episode and the SPOILER thing is just so much worse because of everyone being on their own timeframe.

http://watchingwaytoomuch.com

Daveed
Daveed

James,

While I can't read your story in full (not done the show yet)... i glanced and have a question for you.

Do you think that long-form serialized dramas can / should be compared equally to non-serializes dramas?  When I watch a show that is meant for each episode to immediately follow the next, I think of it as a "very" long form movie.  (think Lord of the Rings + the Hobbit the dvd edition).

Certainly Lost / The Wire / House of Cards / Game of Thrones / etc cannot be watched or considered on a week-by-week basis the same way that say The Good Wife can. 

So...that said, how can we evaluate these shows so that we accept that a lull in the action is not a weekly lull, but rather a blip in a 10 to 13 (to 60) hour movie?

- Dave


MarlboroMagpies
MarlboroMagpies

Like you I have kids but I do not watching TV for a living. I too finished everything in about 1 week.

Just completed the show and I too cannot wait for season 2 to start. 

Spoiler Alert. I really wanted some input from anyone who have finished the season. Stop reading if you have not finished.

I was wondering if Frank plan from the beginning was to be the vice president? It seems the way the show present itself to the audience was that originally he really wanted Russo to be the governor. He really wanted the clean water bill to pass and if it did, Russo will likely win. It was his wife under Sam Corp influence that caused him to lose the bill. 

So if Peter Russo was elected. Was his original plan to make Russo his puppet all the way to the white house. That would take years and honestly too many uncontrollable factors.

He only changed his mind after Russo threatened him when the bill did not pass. By then he was plotting for Russo downfall so he could ultimately become the VP. 

But isn't this plan faster and better for Frank in the 1st place ? It seems more brilliant. If it was Frank plan since the beginning, then as audience we were fool. He could not have known Claire would cause the bill to fail. 

This is the part of the story that I still do not really understand. What was his original plan ? 

I guess now I am like the Zoe Barnes and friends guessing Frank' s motive !

For those who have finished the season, what do you guys think? I really would like to know.


sunlitweb
sunlitweb

I watched it all in a marathon HOC fest beginning yesterday afternoon. This was a brilliant move by Netflix, by the way. If nothing else it shows they are willing to take calculated risks that pay off.

The only downside is waiting for Season Two. But it will be well worth the wait. I may watch Season One again, it's just that good.

Mr.Wallingford
Mr.Wallingford

"Side effect of watching: Craving ribs, all the time." Thank you for making me laugh out loud! (Funny because it's true.)

nancyscuba
nancyscuba

Can't. Stop. Watching. Period. It's addictive. I watched at least 6 episodes in a row. 

IPFletcher
IPFletcher

I started watching Friday night and finished his past Tuesday night. I had much the same reaction as you: up, down, then up again just in time for the end. My 2cents:

* I was initially pleasantly surprised by Claire actually having her own storyline. In the original British version, the wife was more an abetting, malevolent presence than an actual character. Then- in my opinion -they ruined it by having her throw a stereotypical "female" hissy-fit. No lie- I fast-forwarded through the majority of the scenes between her and that photographer, which screamed "dead-end plotline" to me.

* I was also very surprised by the military academy reunion episode and the revelations about Frank contained within, once again something else that differed from the original in a good way.

* The Russo campaign was driving me nuts- I kept thinking, "did this show just turn into 'West Wing-lite'? The concurrence of this story with the Claire debacle almost had me giving up, but then...

* Gerald McRaney showed up and all was well, which seems to be a typical result whenever he's cast these days.

* Two final notes: 1) Michael Kelly = aces, 2) I don't think I've seen this much of my hometown (Baltimore) on TV since 'The Wire' was on; made me happy.  :)

alynch3
alynch3

"And I liked the decision to set the show amid one-party control, a la 2009, not for any partisan reasons but because internecine party conflicts fit the tone of the drama"

This has me thinking. Did we meet a single Repoblican politician the whole season? The closest one I can think of is Frank's hometown rival in the Peachoid episode.

Mickiee
Mickiee

Spacey was terrific. Few could pull off the monologues, but he was a master.  The other leads didn't disappoint.  I watched over a week...two episodes a night.  Fulfilling without fattening.  

The President and Russo characters were slightly below par lacking in believability, but helped the story along.  Loved the jousting between Frank and "nuke tycoon."  

Netflix is challenging the traditional TV-serial drama model with quality and creativity.  Bravo to them.  

Bring on the second season.

KlGepp
KlGepp

Great review. What I find interesting about the response to the show is how so many people hate Zoe Barnes. She's not the greatest character on House of Cards and the sex scenes with Frank hugely devalue the character, but I quite liked her and I found Kate Mara's performance to be fantastic. 

Definitely looking forward to the second season.

PurpleDragonfly
PurpleDragonfly

@MarlboroMagpies I think his whole plan was to tank Russo but closer to the election.  After the bill fails, Underwood tells Doug that they'll have to accelerate their plan and Doug says something about there still being 2 months until the election and that once they start down this path they are committed.  So I think the original plan was to  do what they did - get Russo to fall off the wagon in a public way so that the VP can be manipulated into filling in - but closer to the election.  It would, theoretically, have been an easier sell for them closer to the election when it would have been even harder to find a new candidate to fill in for Russo.  That's why they kept the girl where they had access to her.  Also, don't forget Underwood making a comment about Russo doing drugs and sleeping with prostitutes even though he played the family man and that he was going to destroy him.  I never for a minute thought that he had Russo's best interests at heart.

I watched the first episode, waited a week to watch the next, then a few days for the next, and then binged on the last 5 episodes over two days.  So it was a gathering momentum thing for me.

OldLeftie
OldLeftie

I agree. This is where the show lost me. I could see Frank manipulating Russo and planning for the bill to fail in order to promote his plan, but if that was the case, there was no reason for him not to recruit Claire more openly.

I also found the asides becoming distracting, expecially when the story turned so dark. Before the watershed bill failed to pass, I was giving Frank the benefit of the doubt, and distinguished this HoC from its Brit antecedent because the US FU seemed far less sociopathic. What allowed me to have some affection for the UK FU was the way Ian Richardson played the role with a certain upper class elan and a seriocomic villiany. Spacey's Underwood does not have that polish, and his surrender to the dark side gives the US version far a far more tragic tone, accentuated by that almost rediculous gothic horror movie music.

jponiewozik
jponiewozik moderator

@MarlboroMagpies "Like you I have kids but I do not watching TV for a living. I too finished everything in about 1 week." DEDICATION!

sunlitweb
sunlitweb

@KlGepp I'm so glad you made note of Kate Barnes performance. It was really good. I didn't see weak acting in any of the leads. Another person who I hope gains acclaim is Robin Wright. My God, she did a fabulous job of capturing her character. She didn't say words, but spoke volumes at times. That woman is brilliant.

MarlboroMagpies
MarlboroMagpies

@PurpleDragonfly @MarlboroMagpies Thank you very much for your reply. I think your answer makes the most sense. I did binged it over a week. I might have missed those small details that you mentioned but now it makes sense. If this was shown on a weekly basis, I think it would be missed and most people would have forgotten those minor details on week 1 when they are watching week 10.

MarlboroMagpies
MarlboroMagpies

@OldLeftie I posted my questions on a few site. It seems no one have the answer. Frank was clearly angry with Claire betraying him so I really thought he wanted the bill to pass and Russo to win. Either they were all as confused as us or all too lazy to type :-)  I have not seen the Brit version but if you have, I assume it probably had a different plot or you might be able to have some clues.


What do you think James ?