What’s your favorite method of catching up on a TV show? There’s the binge of course, at the end of which you’re left with gray pallor and bloodshot eyes. But instead of the sprint there’s always the marathon—immersing yourself in a show over a period of time. Example? I’ve just come up for air after watching all three seasons of “House of Cards” over 17 days or so, and my sojourn in Washington and Gaffney, S.C. was just the right length.
Please understand: by no means do I knock bingeing. If you’ve got the time and the inclination, go for it. I’ve been there—my record is nine episodes of Season 4 of “The Wire” on a New Year’s Day several years ago. The show was in its first run and I was still furious that Stringer Bell had been killed off at the end of Season 3. The subsequent abrupt shift to Prez’s experience as a teacher in an inner city school didn’t interest me initially after the flash of Mr. Bell, Omar and Brother Mouzone, so I stopped watching. But curiosity made me return, only to discover that “The Wire”‘s availability On Demand was due to end on January 2nd. The resulting nine consecutive hours on my couch were well spent despite the horrible headache I ended up with.
We’ve certainly come a long way from traditional TV, where week after week we saw Perry Mason get the real murderer to confess on the witness stand during the last five minutes of the show—that is, if you were home to see it. If not, you had no alternative but to wait for the summer rerun. My how times have changed. In a recent interview the CEO of Netflix referred to the growing trend of “non-linear” television which I’m beginning to think is descriptive not only of the audience’s viewing habits, but the manner of TV storytelling. Since fans are no longer married to the necessity of tuning in on a specific day or time to catch the latest episode, no two people may view—in both senses of the word—a series in the same manner.
My experience with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was a kind of “do it yourself” immersion of the most non-linear sort. Prior to joining the Buffyverse I made fun of the show, primarily because of the title (shame on me, but I still haven’t seen the movie on which the series is based). But then there was an episode entitled “Hush” which to this day I think is one of the best hours of television that’s ever aired.
At my house it then became all “Buffy,” all the time. Having been caught in the post-9/11 unemployment fallout, I could watch reruns twice a day as well as a new episode every Tuesday night (If memory serves, first-run “Buffy” was in its fifth season at that time). While being in a “Buffy” immersion tank had its benefits, there were problems. Because I hadn’t watched the show sequentially, certain events just didn’t resonate for me as they did for longtime viewers. Not to sound heartless, but Joyce’s death in “The Body” and the other characters’ reactions to the loss didn’t send me to my box of tissues. More significantly, I never fell for Angel, and not just because I met Spike first. Wit does it for me more than a pretty face and like “Mad Men”‘s Roger Sterling, Spike always got the best lines. Which, incidentally is why (remove your hats and bow your heads) “Firefly,” another product of Joss Whedon’s genius brain, will last forever for fans—almost every character, with the exception of the Tam kids, got the best lines.
CAUTION: “HOUSE OF CARDS” SPOILERS AHEAD
I was reluctant to jump on the “House of Cards” train for what seemed to be good reasons. I had seen the British original starring Ian Richardson as Francis Urquart in its entirety when it first aired on PBS many years ago, and while the show was delightfully evil in its first two seasons, it became a cartoon in the third. And I wasn’t sure the machinations would translate—the U.K.’s parliamentary system seemed a more enabling environment for someone to rise so swiftly.
Fortunately the American showrunners have changed the tone of the piece considerably. The mood is darker and antagonists, both domestic and foreign, are everywhere. The leading character, now named Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) still addresses the audience in asides which are variously bitter, astute or campy. But what I like most about the manner in which this series is unfolding is that it “reads” like a novel. There’s a strong narrative sense—each succeeding episode indeed feels like the next chapter in a book. Events build on each other. There are plot twists, but little sense of shock with the possible exception of Zoe Barnes’ murder. Since you know certain characters will stop at nothing—and if you don’t, you’re watching the wrong show—the characters’ actions seem to be foretold, though this in no way diminishes your enjoyment. Were you really surprised when Jackie Sharp endorsed Heather Dunbar for President, not Frank? Was there any way Premier Petrov would not have demanded Claire’s resignation as U.N. Ambassador?
The show’s meditations on power and what it does to people are what drive “House of Cards.” Morally upright Solicitor General Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) becomes so besotted with what she perceives to be her destiny to become President that she ultimately offers to buy written proof of Claire’s abortion for two million dollars (It helps to come from money). On the other hand, there’s Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), Frank’s successor as House Majority Whip, who starts her game by forcibly pushing her mentor out to pasture, only to have twinges of conscience down the road when Frank’s demands during her stalking horse Presidential candidacy cross the line.
While Frank Underwood realizes his ambition by becoming President, things are more complex than he ever dreamed. The Russian Premier is even better at the game than he is, and Frank to his dismay doesn’t seem to enjoy himself as much anymore. But while it’s doubtful he holds the people around him (or for that matter, himself) in any high regard, he respects and indeed reveres the office he now holds. The role of Frank Underwood invites overplaying, but so far Kevin Spacey has mainly resisted the temptation.
But the sine qua non of “House of Cards” is Robin Wright as Claire Underwood. It’s impossible to take your eyes off her. It’s not just her look and her demeanor—you always wonder how the character has ended up the way she has. Perhaps it’s to the showrunners’ credit that they haven’t given us the whys and wherefores yet; this way we’re left to our own suppositions about her past, her early relationship with Frank and whether things have always been this twisted and if not, what caused it. It’s agonizing that we won’t be getting even the smallest of hints until the show picks up again on Netflix next year.
I hope “House of Cards” avoids the problems that arose during the run of its British counterpart. The ascent to the top is always more fun than the drudgery of maintaining power, and I hope the show provides a counterbalance by featuring more campaign razzle-dazzle in its next season (the Presidential debate between Frank, Jackie Sharp and Heather Dunbar was terrific). More fundamentally, though, the basic scheme of “House of Cards” begs the question of how many people can Frank destroy and/or bump off before the show becomes ridiculous? And will Frank’s descent, which is sure to come, be as enjoyable to watch as his accession?
It all remains to be seen.