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Why 'House of Cards' Binge-Watching Disposability is a Feature, Not a Bug

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire February 18, 2014 at 3:59PM

Critics complain Netflix's all-at-once strategy doesn't leave time to discuss individual episodes. But maybe that's the point.
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Kevin Spacey in 'House of Cards'
Kevin Spacey in 'House of Cards'

This being a film blog, we have more occasion to talk about screenwriter and novelist Rafael Yglesias than his son, Matt, who writes about economics for Slate. But there's an insight in the younger Yglesias' column that's worth plucking out of the analysis about HBO and Netflix's respective profit margins. (That's not to say you should skip the other stuff, just that I'm out of my depth commenting on it.)

Some critics have lamented the way Netflix's all-at-once release strategy disrupts the comfortable rhythms established by a weekly TV show. Though there's still some debate, it's generally agreed that it's all right to talk about a given episode of Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead the following morning: As a parlor game, watch the specificity of social-media headlines escalate the day after a major plot twist: "Last night's shocking Scandal" becomes "Liv's Family Life Gets Complicated" becomes "Mama Pope is back!" But with House of Cards or Orange Is the New Blackthere's no road map, no collective agreement on when it's okay to discuss that shocking thing that happens in the first episode of season 2 (although it's okay to turn it into a GIF). 

But Yglesias argues that this is, at least from Netflix's point of view, a feature, not a bug:

Releasing a whole big batch of episodes all at once is clearly a smart business strategy. Encouraging a show’s biggest fans to gorge on episodes builds more buzz and sets off the kind of social cascades that make hits more likely. In other words, all the people binging on Season 2 of House of Cards -- and talking about their binging -- inspired me to finally go back and start binging on Season 1. It also helps to disable critical thinking about how compelling the content really is. 

Binge-watching is Netflix's brand, so it's only logical that they use their original content to hammer that point home. The second season of House of Cards -- or rather episodes 14 to 26, as they're labeled -- opens with what amounts to a slap in the face for viewers who don't remember exactly where we left off (or maybe that should be, in the spirit of Francis Underwood's birthday cufflinks, an F.U.). After Francis and his wife, Claire, come home from the jog they set off on at the end of the first season, Francis is met with an update from his right-hand man, Doug Stamper, which sounds like gobbledegook unless you're up to date:


DOUG: Christina -- I just spoke to her.

FRANCIS: Did Zoe...?

DOUG: Yeah. And that's not all. She tracked down Rachel, too. 

FRANCIS: Anyone else involved?

DOUG: Just Janine and Zoe. They asked about Russo's arrest and they know we went to see Kapeniak. I assume that's as far as they've gotten.

Who did what to who now?

As Yglesias points out, disrupting the cycle where episodes are consumed one at a time and dissected during the intervening week has another benefit: The individual episodes, frankly, don't have to be as good. If you're watching a TV show as it airs, you have to make a choice to tune in every week. With House of Cards, all you have to do is stay put.

I'm halfway through House of Cards' second season now, and I'm edging ever closer to thinking it's high-toned garbage, enlivened by the great performances of Robin Wright, Michael Kelly and new addition Molly Parker, but generally dull, convoluted and shallow. (It doesn't help that the execution of the aforementioned Chapter 14 plot twist struck me as fundamentally vile.) Although my wife and I regularly shoot each other worried glances as this or that character edges nearer to destruction, I care more about white-hat hacker Jimmi Simpson's pet guinea pig than I do about any of the show's humans. (You've been warned, Beau Willimon: Hurt Cashew and there will be hell to pay.) 

But House of Cards isn't made to be savored. It's built to be bolted down like a greasy cheeseburger, or more specifically the overpriced variant thereof you find in copycat gastropubs. Ending an episode on a note that encourages the audience to stop and think messes with Netflix's business model. And yet, I'm pretty sure I'm going to end up finishing House of Cards. Not because it's great, but because it's there.


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