This weekend an unusual thing happened: I had absolutely nothing to do. No plans whatsoever. Even after advertising that I was completely free all weekend, no one took the bait and invited me to do anything. For a person who is otherwise booked up through June, this was a startling development.
With nothing but free time ahead of me, I decided to finally sit down and watch the new Netflix series House of Cards. The series had debuted on February 1st, but I had been far too busy with the final push in the Oscar death race to even consider sitting down to watch it. This proved to be a dangerous gamble; since Netflix had released all 13 episodes of the first season at once, people could watch the series at their own pace. This made it difficult to avoid spoilers. With regularly scheduled weekly television programs, it’s generally easy to avoid getting spoiled; if you don’t want to know who died on The Walking Dead, stay off Twitter Sunday night and skip certain entertainment websites the next morning. By Monday afternoon, you are usually in the clear. However, with people watching House of Cards whenever they want, it becomes harder to predict when someone may take to social media and reveal some major plot points. I can’t really blame people who do reveal things – it’s hard to remember that not everyone is on the same schedule as you when it comes to this series. Many of the pop culture bloggers that I regularly read struggled in how best to cover this series. This new model of programming is challenging for everyone, but serves as a good test run for what will happen when all of the new Arrested Development episodes drop at the same time. I think I’m already planning to take a day off when that happens.
I decided to binge-watch House of Cards. I started in on the episodes around noon on Saturday and was done with the series by noon on Sunday. As I’ve mentioned before, I really like watching TV shows in marathon sessions; I feel like you really get immersed in the program and I find that I enjoy some programs a lot more when there isn’t a lot of time to ponder things before the next episode started. I really liked Once Upon a Time when I watched the first season over a few days, but now that I’m watching the episodes week to week, I am much less enamored with the program. That is partially due to what I see as a decline in plotting and writing in the second season, but it is also because with time to deliberate between airings it is much easier to see the show’s flaws.
Ultimately, I think I enjoyed House of Cards as much as I did partially because of my chosen viewing process. It is a good, not great show, where it is much easier to overlook its shortcomings when you can immediately fire up the next episode. It didn’t mean I didn’t notice the issues, but it wasn’t until I had finished all 13 episodes that I really reflected on them. It was still very enjoyable and I look forward to the second season, but if I had given myself more time to deliberate I think I would have been able to put my finger on what was bothering me earlier.
House of Cards in a political drama that focuses on House Majority Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey). After being passed over for Secretary of State – a nomination that he thought was in the bag – Underwood sets out to exact revenge on those who betrayed him. His wife Clair (Robin Wright) is his closest advisor and political strategist; she is just as ruthless as her husband in her career as the head of a non-profit. Imagine pretty much the opposite of Princess Buttercup in The Princess Bride. Kate Mara also stars as Zoe Barnes, a reporter for The Washington Herald who is desperate to make a name for herself by any means necessary. Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) is a troubled U.S. Representative who may get caught up in all of Underwood’s scheming. To say any more is to give too much away, but all of the actors do a fine job.
House of Cards is right in my wheelhouse; as a political scientist by trade, I’m always fascinated with anything that takes place on Capitol Hill or that chronicles the intrigue and corruption of political elites. It’s the same reason I enjoy Game of Thrones so much. I’m just a sucker for political intrigue. I fancy myself a bit of a Machiavellian creature; I’m a pretty nice person so I rarely use the power for evil, but I am a pretty good strategist when I need to be. Underwood, however, takes it to a whole different level; he’s a sociopath who you definitely don’t want to wrong. You kind of have to admire him for his single mindedness. Spacey seems to really enjoy playing this character; his southern drawl may not be perfect, but he otherwise fully embodies Underwood.
This is not a boring series about the wheeling and dealing that happens in Washington D.C. House of Cards really has something for everyone – murder, infidelity, drug use, prostitution, corruption, and even a small role for an alumni of The Wire. There is a lot going on in each episode and some stories work better than others; while almost everything associated with Frank lands nicely, no matter how much Robin Wright tried to sell it, I didn’t really care much about the non-profit story lines. Sometimes a story that seems like a distraction has a nice payoff, but other times the stories don’t quite land. Luckily these are missteps are few and far between, so they do not detract too much from the overall effectiveness of the storytelling.
The main issue I had with House of Cards was the shallowness of the character development and the fact that characters will mutate as the story necessitates. You don’t really get to know any of these characters particularly well. Everyone is so ambitious that becomes their defining characteristic. The one exception is Peter Russo, who is the most three dimensional of all the characters. I didn’t realize how little we knew about these characters as actual people, rather than sharks going in for the kill, until around the 7th episode when Frank returns to his alma mater for an honor. It’s perhaps one of my favorite episodes of the first season, which is odd because there isn’t a lot of intrigue or backstabbing. Instead, it pulls the curtain back a little on Frank and who he really is, which was a refreshing change of pace. Unfortunately, for most of the other characters, we never get that glimpse.
The bigger problem with the series is that because we know so little about these people, the plot often dictates how they behave. This results in a lot of actions that seemingly come out of right field. Zoe suffers from this perhaps the most; she is totally fine with a particular arrangement, until she totally isn’t. The story necessitates this change, but it doesn’t feel at all organic. On more than one occasion, I found myself thinking “whoa – where did THAT come from?” while watching the story unfold. It’s a shortcut, but a cheap one. One of the reasons I stopped watching Glee was that the characters had no true self; their personalities were easily changed in service of the story they wanted to tell. Now House of Cards is a far smarter show than Glee, but it suffers from a similar problem on occasion. I hope that this is something that they address for season 2. They may want to focus more on the essential storylines to give them some room to breathe, so that when someone does a complete about face it doesn’t seem so abrupt.
Despite some failings, I still really enjoyed House of Cards. It may not be able to stand up to the Breaking Bad and Mad Men of the world, but it is still a smart and well-acted series that is better than a lot of what is on broadcast television. This is a dark show; if you hold on to any notion that politicians as a group are actually interested in what is best for their constituents, you will walk away disillusioned. Still, it is a pleasure to watch a master strategist in action. In a lot of ways, House of Cards has a lot in common with Survivor. These characters may not be trapped on a beach or have to participate in physical challenges (though Frank does spend a fair amount of time on his rowing machine), but they are all trying to outwit, outplay and outlast everyone else. A House of Cards marathon was definitely not the worst way to spend my weekend.
The entire first season of House of Cards is available on Netflix streaming.