Binge Watching – Now Officially Sanctioned: House of Cards

Of course once everything started to be streamed and put on DVD, people began to binge-watch television series, but it wasn’t how those episodic episodes were designed. You were supposed to be subscribing to HBO, and spending every Sunday with the Sopranos, and then once they went on hiatus, waiting patiently (or impatiently) for the next season to start.

These days many folks don’t bother with the premium channels and simply rent entire seasons on DVD a year or so later. Some shows like those on AMC are available for instant download the day after they are shown, and almost everything can be found illegally somewhere on the Internet – not that I’m advocating that.

I somehow didn’t get around to watching Breaking Bad for years, but began a Netflix-binge that brought me up to date in three lost days. Lost was a series I’d watched on and off for a season or two. Then I heard it had gotten better. Time travel was involved. The whole thing was up on Hulu, and I was off. I watched four seasons of Dexter over a weekend once. It’s nothing to be proud of. It is no more boast-worthy than a weekend of compulsive masturbation or cookie-eating.

Netflix has upped the ante by releasing all 13 episodes of the first season of House of Cards at once. It’s an all you can watch buffet.  I just spent the last two days watching the totality, which comes out to probably just under eleven hours that no doubt could have been better spent.

It certainly wasn’t the worst thing to watch. I’m now curious about the British series on which it was based – which is also available on Netflix. But it wasn’t riveting either. The pace seemed somehow “British” a lot of talking, less on the action. Still it’s not the worst accompaniment to online mahjong or scrabble.

Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of Francis Underwood is undermined by the device of having his character often speak directly to the audience, revealing his true intentions. We should have been able to work out for ourselves when he is lying. Like the old joke about lawyers, it would be whenever his lips his are moving.

Robin Wright’s portrayal of his wife is somewhat enigmatic, and meant to be. They are a “power” couple who sleep with others, often for some gain beyond sex.  But while Francis seems motivated completely by the acquisition of power, it’s less clear what motivates Claire. We hear various possibilities – fun, excitement, and wanting to do something “significant” are mentioned, but it’s not entirely clear why she stays and whether or not she really understands the extent of her husband’s venality. While she’s more actively involved than Carmella Soprano, she’s no Lady Macbeth.

As for the politics, while there is an evil corporation with a slick lobbyist, it really seems like most of the politics on the show is about power for powers’ sake, and I don’t buy that. Like The West Wing, the series downplays the role of corporations and big economic interests in subverting the democratic process. On The West Wing, the theory was if only a bunch of good idealistic people were in power, than everything could change. House of Cards may be more cynical, with its wheeler-dealers and Machiavellian plotting, but it’s no more realistic regarding who the true power-holders are.

But still, can we accept the world it creates on its own fictional terms?  To some extent yes, once you surrender to the reality that it is not a realistic portrayal. But even then, in episode twelve, when Francis gets his own hands dirty rather than sending someone else to do what needs to be done, it strained credibility. On the one hand, committing your own murder means that you are the only one who knows exactly what happened, and no one else can be broken or forced to betray you. On the other hand, the rich and powerful are different – they always outsource their homicides. Still, we were set up for his act in the first scene of the first episode when he takes it upon himself to twist the neck of an injured dog, putting it out of its misery and saving himself from listening to its futile yelping. There was in that sense, a continuity to the series.

There are too many times when his master plan is going exactly as he imagines it will. If we view Francis’ quest for power as a caper, more should go wrong. Capers are no fun if they’re pulled off as planned. We also really don’t know who to root for. In Breaking Bad, there were several possibilities, even on Dexter somehow audiences identify with the socio-pathic serial killer, and in Homeland rational human beings hope those two crazy kids will somehow make it even if one is a CIA agent with serious mental health issues, and the other is a terrorist with serious mental health issues, and then of course there was the Sopranos where for several years we believed, as did his psychiatrist that Tony was capable of change. There’s really no one either likeable or fascinating enough in House of Cards. It doesn’t matter much if Francis eventually becomes president, or doesn’t, if Clare leaves, or doesn’t, or whether anyone gets caught. Toward the end of the season we began to see Kate Mara’s Zoe Barnes develop a bit of integrity and maybe even guts (as opposed to simply ambition). But are we just being set up for her destruction in season two? My guess would be yes. Ultimately, evil will triumph, the Republic will not be saved. We got that in the first five minutes as well.

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