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House of Cards: Five Reasons to Binge-Watch This Show

by Ethan Alter February 1, 2013 3:51 pm
<i>House of Cards</i>: Five Reasons to Binge-Watch This Show

The future of television may have arrived today in the form of Netflix's heavily hyped original series House of Cards, a 13-episode political thriller set inside the halls of power in the nation's capital. It's not just the prestigious names (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are in front of the camera, while directors like David Fincher, Carl Franklin, James Foley and... um, Joel Schumacher are behind it) that are associated with this remake of a popular British series that makes it such a notable production -- it's also the way Netflix is choosing to put it out into the world. Instead of going network-style with one episode per week, the streaming service is releasing all 13 hour-long installments of Season 1 in bulk, allowing viewers to decide if they want to consume the whole thing in one day, one week or one month. It's the ultimate test of the relatively new practice of "binge-watching" television, an experiment Netflix will try again in April when it unveils an entire new season of Arrested Development in one fell swoop. Will it work? We'll have to wait and see. In the meantime, we watched the first episode of House of Cards and here are five reasons why you'll probably want to binge-watch this series.

It's Insanely Timely
The pilot (can you still use that word in non-traditional episodic TV?) picks up just as a new president -- Garrett Walker (Michael Gill) -- has been elected and is preparing to be sworn into office, not unlike the election and subsequent inauguration we just experienced. (Although, obviously, in the real world, we re-elected the same guy instead of picking a new one.) Not only that, but the catalyst that sets the story in motion involves the President's choice of replacement for the outgoing Secretary of State... again, something we've just watched happen in the real District of Columbia. Walker had privately promised to pick Congressional Majority Whip Francis Underwood (Spacey) for the position, especially after the Congressman was so instrumental in getting him elected. But now that he's actually sitting in the Oval Office, the new POTUS pulls a bait and switch, informing him (in a cowardly move, through a third party) that he'll be remaining in the House after all. As you can imagine, this gets Underwood all hot under the collar and, well, let's just say he's not taking the slight lying down. We're just imagining what real-world incoming Secretary John Kerry would have done if President Obama had decided to pass him over for the job. Probably not all that much, actually...

The Premise is Built for Juicy Twists and Turns
After being informed of his fate, Underwood wastes little time in fighting back. Good thing for him that he's got a willing ally at home: his ambitious, strong-as-steel wife Claire (Wright), who wants Francis to have the job even more than he wants it. Late that night, the two of them come to an agreement: they're going to start playing a long game of revenge, a game that will involve scheming into the wee small hours and next to no sleep. From here on in, they're freelance political mercenaries, out to screw over anyone if it gets them ahead. The first order of business is to derail Walker's big initiative, education reform, a goal he's on the path to achieving by the end of the hour with the help of frustrated journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), who is equally willing to put morality aside in the interest of career advancement. And it's clear that a lot more intrigue will be coming down the pike as well, since everyone in this version of D.C. has an angle, not to mention a few skeletons in the closets. As viewers who have already mainlined The Wire and Breaking Bad know, shows with labyrinthine plots and dozens of characters are almost always more fun when consumed in the fewest amount of sittings -- the better to experience every twist right away, not to mention not having to constantly ask, "Wait, who is that guy again?"

Kevin Spacey's Great... but Robin Wright is Even Better
It's been a long while since Spacey has delivered a performance that's worth a damn (on film at least -- we can't speak to his extensive stage credits in recent years), but from the opening scenes of House of Cards, he's absolutely dialed into this role, tartly delivering every devious, conniving line of dialogue in a loose Southern drawl. He's so much fun to watch, he even makes one our least favorite devices -- characters breaking the fourth wall and talking directly into the camera -- palatable. But as good as Spacey is, the real star of the show is Wright, playing a version of Hillary Clinton by way of Lady Macbeth, or to go with a more recent evil queen, Cersei Lannister. (Let's just say that Princess Buttercup could have learned a thing or two from Claire.) Frank may be the one in Congress, but she's clearly the one in charge and we can't wait to see how she uses that power for good evil as the series progresses. (For the record, Mara isn't bad either. It's about time that Rooney's sister won back some attention.)

The Dialogue is Pretty Good Sorkin-Lite
A political drama about intrigue in Washington D.C. and Aaron Sorkin's name is nowhere to be found in the credits? Weird. But the writing team has clearly boned up on their Sorkin because the dialogue in House of Cards has some of the same snap and fondness for grand metaphors. There's no substitute for the real thing, of course, but the following first episode lines are good examples of the B-level Sorkinisms that the Cards crew has come up with.
- "Do I like him? No. Do I believe in him? That's beside the point."
- "The nature of promises is that they remain immune to changing circumstances."
- "I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood."
- "Right now, I don't need imagination. I need copy."
- "I almost pity him. He didn't choose to be put on my platter. When I carve him up and toss him to the dogs, only then will he confront that brutal, inescapable truth, 'My God, all I ever amounted to was chitlins."
- "Oh Brian, you're so sweet... really. But if I was going to fuck you, you'd know."
- "Nobody's a boy scout, not even boy scouts."

Because Why Wait?
And here's the real reason why the Netflix model may prove so successful. Thanks to DVRs, HBO Go, On Demand channels, Hulu and other means of time-shifting TV, many viewers (particularly those in advertisers' target demographic) have grown accustomed to watching as much of a show as they want, when they want. If you sample the first episode of House of Cards and like what you see, it's just so convenient to let another episode play... followed by another, and then another and then one more for good measure. So go ahead: drink up House of Cards. After all, the faster you get through this series, the faster you can get back to binging on Downton Abbey or whatever other show you're trying to catch up on.

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