In the barely pre-dawn hours of Sunday, I finished the first season of House of Cards, the new Netflix show/experiment, hours after I sat down to watch "one episode before bed." That I remained as hooked as I was by the time I pressed play on the thirteenth and final episode at 4 a.m. speaks to the fact that, yes, the show ended up being pretty darn entertaining. But it also says something about the experience of watching television in this brand-new, all-at-once form that Netflix has adopted, and will continue to foist upon us all year: It's stressful!
First things first: Yes, House of Cards itself turned out to be a lot of fun. While I was initially wary about the show's credibility as a truth-tellin' political drama, it turns out that the show is actually much more of a D.C.-set Damages than a West Wing emulator. There isn't quite as much bark or bite in House of Cards, but the bones are the same. Kevin Spacey's wheeling-and-dealing majority whip Frank Underwood is starkly self-interested and yet oddly humane, just like Patty Hewes. Like Damages, House of Cards is full of odd details and idiosyncrasies — Damages had its brown liquor chats, House of Cards has its cigarettes by the window — and teases at plots and background details that we'll likely never explore, but that enrich the world of the story just by being there. In one episode of House of Cards, as close to a bottle episode as the show gets, Underwood goes to his old military college to have a library dedicated in his name, but mostly he is there to reconnect with old buddies. They get drunk and in one curious and wonderfully superfluous scene, Underwood's sexuality is lightly, vaguely called into question. This has nothing to do with anything else, but seemingly out-of-place moments like these make House of Cards hum with strange and vibrant life.
Also like Damages, this show is by no means a perfect one. Certain plot points, like a bizarre scene during a CNN debate, and some stretching of political reality, as well as some eyebrow-raising condensing of time, make the show feel soapier than maybe its creators intended. But that's OK. Because ultimately the big machine that's being built throughout the season, a process we maybe don't even know we are watching until the grand reveal, turns out to be quite something. It's saucy and sinister and, somewhat frustratingly, leaves you hanging at the very end. Hopefully this gamble pays off and we get another season. It'd be a shame to never have closure on such an enticing story. Oh, and the acting is uniformly terrific, some standouts being Constance Zimmer as a sardonic reporter, Corey Stoll as a severely messed up congressman, Sakina Jaffrey as the president's calculating chief of staff, and especially Robin Wright, who gives her initially cold-as-ice character remarkable shading and depth. She's scary and removed, but you eventually find yourself rooting for her iciness. It's one of the most exciting television performances I've seen in some time.
So, yes, the show is good. But the experience of watching it? For the birds. Maybe some of you are having a grand old time, bopping along gamely, not rushing anything, picking up an episode or two when you can. But I do not function like that. Partly because of my job but mostly because I'm an obsessive worrywart, I felt absolute pressure to finish the series by the end of the weekend. My mind created a deadline of Monday at 9 a.m. that I needed to meet. And, because I knew the Super Bowl was on last night, that meant finishing the show Saturday night or Sunday morning. So I started on episode six, and seven hours later, there I was, blinking my salty eyes and dying for more. The fear, really, was that I'd be left behind if I didn't finish. That of course everyone else would watch the whole thing by the start of the work week and I wouldn't have anything to contribute. Yeah, I'd get spoiled, too, but honestly that wasn't at the top of my list of concerns. I was mostly worried about being left out. That's the problem with this everything-at-once episode dump. There was no way to keep pace with everyone else. Who knew what anyone else's viewing style was? Surely some people watched the whole damn thing on Friday! Knowing that, or rather the not knowing of it, kinda drove me nuts. Hence five in the morning, hence a really groggy Sunday afternoon, hence my overstuffed mind-bloat of overindulging. This is mostly my fault, but I think Netflix needs to help me out a little next time.
I suppose you could get a group of friends together and plan regular viewings. That way the power (and threat) of a community will keep you from overdoing it. But for us lonely weirdos, it might be nice if Netflix helped us out just a little in the self-control department. Why not mete out the show in increments, like everyone else does? They could do two at a time. That way the show unfolds over a month and a half and everyone feels relaxed, knowing that they're getting the episodes at essentially the same pace as everyone else. You might say that because for Netflix it's simply about subscriptions that, well, it doesn't really matter if they release something all at once or one by one. But what about buzz? What about media attention? Now that House of Cards, all of House of Cards, is out, how long until it drifts out of the cultural conversation? If the release is done more slowly, over a period of weeks, that creates anticipation and excitement. More people hear about it, more people sign up. A more traditional model is probably good for business. I mean, HBO doesn't unceremoniously dump a whole new season of Game of Thrones on demand on some Sunday night. (Though, oh, how I wish they would.) Because HBO likes having an event, week after week. They've very successfully built a business out of that. Think about it, Netflix. I know everyone is excited for the return of Arrested Development, so maybe tease them a bit, drag it out. Don't just throw all the episodes at us at once, lest we feel pressured into another wild binge — they won't go in order anyway. Especially for something as hotly anticipated as AD.
If you still haven't started House of Cards, I think you should. It's engaging and well-acted and gets surprisingly knotty and complex by the end. It drags a bit in the middle (teachers strike... zzz...) but redeems itself in the last three episodes. And, if you can, take your time. I know that Netflix has given you all of the drug and you want to gobble it down as fast as you can, but the high is probably better the more you prolong it. Think of it is as TV tantra. Draw it out and you'll enjoy it more. And you could make it easier for us next time, Flixy. I know we're all supposed to be grown adults, with credit cards to pay for our subscriptions and everything, but come on. We can't be trusted with this. For some it's a fear of spoilers, for others it's a fear of being left out of the conversation, and for a few it's probably a fear of never actually finishing the show unless they just plow through it. (Hello, Battlestar.) Whatever the reason, House of Cards's sudden, total availability created a stressful, manic viewing experience. I loved watching it, I'm just not sure I loved how I watched it.