“House of Cards” — A Bulimic Buffet for Couch Potatoes?

Why wait a week to watch another episode when an entire buffet is available?  A lot has been written recently about “binge-watching” the practice of sitting on the couch or in bed to gorge on an entire season or a majority of episodes of a television series in one batch.  The bulimic viewer was not possible before Tivo, DVRs and Netflix video streaming (aka Instant Queue). Netflix has given us 13 episodes of “House of Cards”, a reinterpretation of the 1990 BBC miniseries which starred Sir Ian Richardson as a conniving Parliamentarian who rose to the level of prime minister before meeting his fate.

This 2013 “House of Cards” is the first foray into developing original television content exclusively for Netflix members. What has been the unintended outcome of the release of all thirteen episodes of “House of Cards” on February 1 is that the critical reviews of “House of Cards” have been more about “binge-watching” and less about the plot of this powerful political minidrama.

With the genius of Beau Willimon, (the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of “The Ides of March”) and David Fincher (Oscar-nominated for directing “The Social Network”) we have a set of twisted plots worthy of Machiavelli or the Borgias. “House of Cards” has been transformed into a contemporary American narrative about a vengeful Beltway insider, US Congressman and House majority whip Frank Underwood.  Hailing from a nowhere town in South Carolina, Underwood masterminds the destruction of all those who blocked his appointment to Secretary of State.

Set in present-day Washington, D.C., Underwood (Kevin Spacey) decides to inflict his volcanic temper and impalpable revenge upon those who betrayed him.  With lethal self-centeredness he is successful in every detail.  Underwood and his wife Claire (exceptionally played by Robin Wright), epitomize an über power-hungry couple who stops at nothing to conquer everything.  Each needs the other in order to be lethal.   Ruthless and cunning, Frank and Claire bask in the shadowy world of greed, sex, and corruption, severing all ties with anyone who stands in their way.  Nothing and no one are beyond their grasp, no matter whom they hurt.  Both exploit even the good qualities in others to set them up for manipulation and debasement.

While I personally like watching more than one episode at a time, if the story is tightly woven and meticulously written, I want to savor every tasty morsel.  “House of Cards” has such biting dialog, stunning character work and a provocative exploration of contemporary politics that an “all-you-can-watch” buffet of episodes may result in indigestion. Use portion control in feasting on this series.


Comments (6)

  • Having lived near and worked in Washington, D. C. for 7 years, it’s easy to get caught up in the goings of politics there, and the pull of whoever the president is in the White House is big. After all, he is not just a president of the U.S. He is the leader of the Free World! Living in Washington, D.C. makes one have what Washingtonians call “Potomic fever”. The “House of Cards” sounds esp. intriguing. I can imagine the tantalizing feeling of the power the city exudes and the desire to embrace it and be part of it. And if one is denied, then strong urge for revenge sets in.
    Thank you, Diana, for letting us know with your great review of this series in Netflix.

  • I semi-overate this cycle. The first part was really engaging; about episode 1 to 9. The ending stories, like a lot of series just couldn’t end, so they cut it off. I think that’s a cop-out, but maybe it’s the modern way to end stories. I’ve noticed it in other modern works too. Read Dostoyevsky or Jane Austin, or most other more classical writers. Their stories finish, one way or the other.

    • I am only beginning Episode 8, so I can’t comment on the truncated ending. Perhaps the creators did so to gain a loyal following for season 2, which will include another 13 episodes.

  • Diana:

    If you haven’t seen the episode of Portlandia when binge watching alters the lives of a couple (they lose their jobs, their home, all their friends) as they go through all the available episodes of Battlestar Gallactica. This is a must see to understand this new concept. Here’s a link to the YouTube version of the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYjLrJRuMnY

    We watched the first episode of House of Cards and appreciate all you have said of it. Kevin Spacey is a well-etched character. What did you think of the way he speaks directly to the audience at various points? I’m still making up my mind on that.

    • I have always found the “talk to the camera” cinematic device particularly disruptive and irritating. I think the 2013 version of “House of Cards” retains this device in order to pay homage to the 1990’s original drama. “Talking to the camera” is supposedly a way of pulling in the viewer to participate in the character’s thought process and is not used nearly as frequently as in the BBC version. Nonetheless, I wish that David Fincher had eliminated that technical element.

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