Last weekend, I watched nine episodes of “House of Cards” in a row, getting up only to pee during episodes three, five, and six. I would have kept going, too, but unfortunately my eyes began doing that rapid-fire twitch thing that happens after you’ve been staring at a screen for too long, and my friends told me I was starting to talk in an exaggerated Southern accent like the show’s main character, Francis Underwood. “Claire, I DO hope you can be a dear and get me another beer! And now excuse me while I resign to my window for a cigarette.” Personality change disorder, it seems, is as good a reason as any to put down a show.
But we should back up. “House of Cards” is a new show released exclusively on Netflix last Friday. Its first season’s 13 episodes were made available immediately, and an additional 13 are coming next year. Netflix is taking a huge gamble on those 26 episodes—dropping around $100 mill on them, hiring Kevin Spacey to play the show’s lead character, pegging “Fight Club” director David Fincher to direct the first two installments, and postponing the company’s years-long effort to stock every Pauly Shore film in its Instant section. Time will tell if the moves pay off financially. But for now, it seems that everyone is happy with the results: It's Netflix's most-streamed show.
It should go without saying that “House of Cards” is pretty, pretty good. For what it lacks in originality—a dark and and complicated middle-aged man is yet again the main protagonist (or is he an antagonist!?), and this one even kills a dog in the show’s opening minutes—it more than makes up in compulsive watchability. In some ways, it’s like “Lincoln,” the year’s other surprisingly enjoyable political drama. Both are essentially concerned with the machinations of power. How you get shit down in a town where those cards are stacked against you. How you backstab and bribe and connive with others in order to exert your will. The only difference between the two is this: Francis Underwood has only his personal greatness in mind. (And, he’s a fictional character, I guess.)
The watchability of “House of Cards” isn’t really the point, though. The point is that the show was released on Netflix, meaning you can watch the entire season whenever you want. There are no previews. No waiting till next week. Watch three episodes at a time each night. Watch nine in a row like me. Binge away! Or don’t! No one cares!
This is truly unprecedented. A brand-new show is allowing you to do what you might have done with “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” “Flavor of Love,” or any of the other esteemed recent shows that you and your buddies swapped DVDs of over the past few years. Netflix realized that we've become so conditioned to binge-watching new shows that it cut out the dated concept of appointment viewing, and left it to you to make your own schedule. It’s a dream scenario.
For some reason, a few critics are irritated by this. Like a dog chasing a car only to lose a leg to it, one said that the episode deluge is too much of a good thing. “House of Cards” should have parceled it all out so viewers could maximize enjoyment, he said. Too many dropped at one time makes you nervous. Another missed the days when we all watched shows together while simultaneously
complaining debating them on Twitter. And I get these criticisms. Watching nine episodes in a row isn't healthy—but, then again, no one is making you watch ‘em all while Googling where to buy a bedpan. And tweets like those that come about each Sunday with “Mad Men” will not exactly be missed. (Actually, every Tweet ever sent about a show in progress is awful.)
So, where does that leave us? After talking with a few buddies around my age and listening to Bob Bowman (CEO of MLB Advanced Media) speak at a sports technology conference this week (two talks that were EASILY on the same intellectual plane), I’m convinced of four things about “House of Cards.”
1. Youngish guys have been doing this for a while. There's a reason why people in their 20s are probably taking to the idea of "House of Cards" better than the critic who missed the social aspect of must-see TV: We already watch the bulk of our television online. Torrented, on Netflix, on DVDs jammed in during flights... the idea of a new show appearing on a computer is just an extension of the norm. This isn't to say that The Olds just don't get ONLINE, or anything like that. It's just that, over the last few years, I've definitely seen more friends holed up in their dorm rooms plowing through seasons of "Breaking Bad" than guys gathering together on Sunday night to watch the show together. TV is becoming more of a solo experience.
2. Yet you still can be social. I continue to have a ton of conversations with friends about TV. They're just more in the vein of "Oh, you're in the first season of 'Breaking Bad.' How gnarly is Tuco?" than "Did you see what happened on 'Mad Men' last night?" It's not the end of the world.
3. There's room for more quality online programming. And we're about to get hit with it. Amazon has ordered six promising pilots for its Instant Video section, including one that stars John Goodman as a senator, and one based off the fake-news website "The Onion." "Arrested Development" is coming to Netflix. "House of Cards" could become the show that kicked off a movement.
4. Some version of this format is the future of television. Right now, the main reason why many people still spring for cable is... Sports. Sports are meant to be watched live. You're not recording the NBA Finals to watch on your own time. But for non-live programming... What's the point really? What's stopping "Mad Men" from going on Netflix and not adhering to any sort of schedule? Is it incomprehensible, in 20 years, that TV channels as we know it won't exist except to air live shows like sports? Smooth-talking Francis Underwood is a character you'd normally see on HBO, Showtime, or AMC. Two of those three channels already exist outside of traditional cable. What purpose is that cable going to serve in the next decades?
Watch “House of Cards.” And get excited for the future.