Sunday, December 21, 2014

House of Cards & The Limits of Binge Viewing

The latest fad in television is the so-called "binge" watch, which is loosely defined as watching a large number of episodes, seasons, or indeed, an entire TV series, in a short period of time. This phenomenon was created by the release of TV shows on DVD and accelerated with the availability of many programs on Netflix. Indeed, it was Netflix that took binge watching to the next level when it began creating its own original content. Instead of parceling out episodes of Orange Is The New Black and House of Cards one at a time like conventional television broadcasters, Netflix released an entire season of each show at once - encouraging binge viewing while generating buzz on social media as people raced to complete their viewing before anyone else. 

I recently "binged" on both seasons of House of Cards, watching all 26 episodes over an about 10 day period. Ironically, the binge format, which Netflix has taken to the next level, worked against House of Cards. Unless you've been living under a rock for the last year or so, you know that House of Cards tells the story of Frank Underwood, who, when the show begins, is the Majority Whip (#3 ranking member) in the House of Representatives. Over the course of the show's two seasons, he maneuvers himself first into the position of Vice President and, ultimately, President, without a shot being fired. Along the way, he does a lot of deceitful (and illegal) things, leaving a wake of dead bodies, broken foes, and half-smoked cigarettes in his wake. 

But here's the thing. Unlike other programs that feed off the cultural zeitgeist like Game of Thrones or Mad Men, each of which generates pages and pages of critical analysis after every episode, because the entire season of House of Cards can be viewed as quickly as you can keep hitting "play," much of the nuance and suspense is drained from the experience. There are no cliffhangers because whatever sticky situation Frank, his wife Claire, or any of the other players in this drama experience, are resolved not a week later, but 45 minutes later. And so, the smaller plot points are obscured because you breeze right past them in service of the larger whole. If you asked me to connect the dots that landed Frank in the Oval Office, I could give you the high points, but not the subtlety. 

On the other hand, you blow right past major plot twists, like Frank's killing of Zoe Barnes, a main character in Season 1 who is tossed in front of a Metro train in the first episode of Season 2, that in a show that only runs once a week, generates days of water cooler discussion. [1] Indeed, because so much of House of Cards plays out like a chess match, consuming three or four episodes at a time devalues the writing and pace the producers are no doubt trying to create. Better that we be able to linger over Frank's asphyxiation of Peter Russo or his and Claire's tryst with their Secret Service agent, but who has time to ponder these developments when there's another episode just waiting to be viewed? 

And that is too bad, because House of Cards is precisely the type of show that would benefit from being watched in smaller doses and endlessly picked over by the Internet. Instead of the sugar rush of dropping an entire season in everyone's lap and having it unpacked in a week, the drama would build over the course of several months, heightening the tension and making the outcome feel far less certain. Ultimately, like gorging until you cannot eat anymore, binge viewing a show like House of Cards will leave you feeling full, but not entirely satisfied. 

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1. This was shown most recently when a character on the show The Good Wife was unexpectedly killed off; however, other major deaths, be they of the "Red Wedding" variety in Game of Thrones or Lane Pryce's demise on Mad Men, not to mention the in limbo cliffhanger we were left in during the fifth season shoot-out in Breaking Bad would have been significantly diluted were we able to just advance to the next episode uninterrupted. 

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