A month ago Netflix released the 13 episodes of “House of Cards” in one fell swoop. I eagerly carved out my Saturday afternoon in order to potentially wolf down all the episodes in a single weekend.
When I began, that was actually pretty much how it went at first. While the thought of a Southern Kevin Spacey threw me and the breaking of the fourth wall felt more “Saved By the Bell” than Shakespeare, there was enough campy fun and intrigue to keep me interested. The stellar performance of Robin Wright Penn didn’t hurt either.
As the episodes progressed, my patience began to wear thin with one particular character and storyline. This is not a “House of Cards” review, but I have to reiterate my Tweets and Facebook posts voicing my distaste with Kate Mara as an actress. This character is supposed to be a ruthless, cunning up and coming journalist. Think Tracy Flick from “Election” after college. Instead, Mara presents a whiny somewhat stupid character who has a completely annoying tendency to pick at her fingers when approaching anyone to have a conversation with them (This is a very acting school approach btw: Think of a physical manifestation of your character’s feelings. Nervous? Yes, pick at your fingers. Never. Stop. Picking. At. Your. Fingers.)
Along about Episode 7, I put the marathon on hold to go have dinner with friends. The following day, I found time for Episode 8, then had to stop again.
Four days later, I realized I had not returned to the show. I watched Episode 9, then fell asleep halfway through Episode 10.
I have yet to finish.
As I suffered through the tedium Episode 9 offered, it dawned on me that, were “House of Cards” presented like a TV show and aired once a week, I probably would have given up before this point.
When “House of Cards” was released, the producers and Netflix executives encouraged people to binge watch their show. Some found the decision to release all 13 episodes at once strange, but “House of Cards” producer Beau Willimon told the New York Times, the show, “might even dispense with episodes altogether. You might just get eight straight or 10 straight hours, and you decide when to press pause.”
For “House of Cards”, this approach works much better than episodes. You end each episode with a cliffhanger of sorts that causes you to turn the page and keep going not because the entire hour was worthwhile, but because you need to know what happens. It is a strategy that works for popular pulp fiction like “The Da Vinci Code” or “Twilight.”
Once you remove the instant gratification of turning on the next episode before the credits (which are LONG btw) of the last one are over, the flaws in this show become more apparent. Though, I think the issue might be less that the show is flawed and more that I was thinking of “House of Cards” too much like a television show.
Look at Willimon’s comment and tell me if that sounds like TV to you. Yes, I have binge watched a season or two of “Lost” in a ten-hour sitting, however, “Lost” is first and foremost a television show. There are act breaks for commercials. Each show comes in between the very precise running times of 42 to 44 minutes. Meanwhile, the structure and length of “House of Cards” varies wildly. There are no act breaks, some shows are just over 50 minutes, while others are just over an hour.
Let’s put it another way: Most of us did not bother seeing “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” in theaters, however, it has developed quite a following since its DVD release thanks in part to its repeated airings on TNT and TBS. I first saw the movie on TBS as a matter of fact. That doesn’t make it a TV movie though.
When producers and creative teams make a product, they design it for a particular form. In the instance of “Lost”, yes, the DVD viewers are taken into consideration, but the weekly episodes on ABC are of the utmost importance. Big action moments come in November and February to take advantage of sweeps months and, coincidentally enough, the story presents some sort of major reveal or resolution every 22 episodes or so, known in the TV world as the season finale.
Sure, “Lost” translates especially well into the binge viewing model. Serial television tends to do that thanks to its use of cliffhanger endings. It also explains why people don’t binge watch comedies as much, as there aren’t the kind of dramatic stakes on the line. Not often you hear someone say, “Man, I plowed through Season 4 of "Cheers” in like half a day.“
Returning to "House of Cards”, hopefully these examples illustrate why calling “House of Cards” a television show is a misnomer and frames the work in a way that is not fair to other television programs or “House of Cards” itself. This first-ever Netflix-produced product isn’t the only work in this unnamed not televisual medium though. Pretty much anything on HBO, Showtime, or other premium cable channels fits the bill too. Hell, they say as much in their tagline, “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.”
That quip is more than just catchy, it is true. Technically, artistically, and commercially, HBO and what it creates is fundamentally different than network or even basic cable programs. Structurally they can write without act breaks, which most writers can tell you changes the feel of an episode tremendously. They can bend the rules on running time if need be. They can be naked, shouting “fuck”, and snorting coke all at the same time. They are also strictly controlled by HBO, who limits the distribution channels for its work, in turn, limiting the types of engagement for these shows.
Many of my peers lament the lack of such freedoms on network TV. I see this point, but I am not lobbying for this new classification because the poor little network shows can’t keep up. In my mind, “Parenthood” was the best drama on television last fall, better than “Mad Men”, better than “The Walking Dead”, and likely better than a lot of stuff on HBO (have to admit I do not have HBO, so my knowledge of their current slate is relatively limited to just “Girls”, which is atrocious, and “The Newsroom”, also atrocious). I have seen and enjoyed most of Season 1 of “Homeland”, but I enjoy episodes less when I watch them by themselves and not in a binge. While I initially got into “Parenthood” by binge watching Seasons 1 and 2, it is a show I prefer a weekly dose of to lift my mood and keep me sane.
This is a knock on either show. “Parenthood” is playing a different game than “The Newsroom” or “Homeland.” It is like comparing Go Fish to Gin Rummy. They are both card games, yes, but beyond that there aren’t many similarities. So, as “House of Cards” develops its following, let’s think about what to call these types of shows that are designed for the binge viewing sessions and not for weekly consumption. While I know television is not the right word, I am open to suggestions as to what the right word is.