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.