What Does House of Cards Mean for the Future of Binge-Watching?

As college students, we may watch a fair amount of TV. Typically, just not when it airs.

We watch Girls on HBO Go when we get the chance, but who even has HBO to catch it when it first comes on anyway? We hit Netflix and binge-watch shows we’ve been meaning to get into, blowing through them over a weekend, because once you get into Breaking Bad, why stop? The current entertainment distribution model is designed to be as personalized and customizable as possible. And as such, as part of that ostensible target demographic, when it comes to Netflix’s hugely hyped new original series House of Cards, we’re put into a unique position.

The show – a remake of a 1990 BBC miniseries of the same name, developed by Ides of March writer Beau Willimon – debuted on Netflix last Friday. That’s not to say that just the pilot debuted on Friday; rather, the entire first season was put up at the same time. Any Netflix member can breeze through the show at their own pace, without having to wait for episodes to be parceled out on a week-by-week basis. This isn’t Netflix’s first attempt at original programming (that would be Lillyhammer – the Norweigan-American Steven Van Zandt-led drama most notable for its bizarre ad campaign), but it’s certainly its most notable and ambitious to date. With the pilot available to stream for free as a promotional gambit, and gigantic ads all over the back of The New York Times, it’s safe to say that Netflix has a lot riding on the success of this show, at least as far as their attempts at original television are concerned.

Thankfully, it’s fairly ideal material for binge-watching. The plotting is nimble and brisk, Willimon’s dialogue has a theatrical snap that moves with enough energy to effectively skirt the ridiculous, and there’s a beautifully sleek aesthetic at work here, largely defined in the first two episodes by director David Fincher, who captures the surface-driven nature of this Washington world with his signature digital gloss.

That’s all secondary to the performances though, which is presumably where Netflix’s money really went, as Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kristen Connolly, Kate Mara, and Corey Stoll (Hemingway from Midnight in Paris!) all deliver consistently excellent work. Though much has been made of Spacey’s scenery chewing Southern accent (he stars as a South Carolina congressman), in many ways it’s emblematic of the show on the whole – even when it should be silly, everyone involved is working at such a committed level that you can’t help but get invested.

But is this reading of the show colored by the fact that it has been consumed so far at an addiction-enabling pace? If you were to follow House of Cards on a week-by-week basis, like a normal show, you’d have time to reflect on each episode and potentially rewatch it in preparation for the next installment. Of course, the diabolical genius of this distribution plan is that you can do just that, it’s rather a question of your self-control. Subsequently, the conversation around House of Cards has been especially interesting to follow as well, with Twitter becoming a veritable minefield of spoilers – even Darren Aronofsky accidentally tweeted a spoiler over the weekend, before realizing that not everyone else was as caught up as him.

If House of Cards is any indication, the traditional days of water-cooler television engagement may be over. When Arrested Development comes back on Netflix this May, how will discussion of the latest Bluth family developments even take place, without having to worry about who’s seen which episodes yet? If the Netflix age of streaming television is here to stay, hopefully we’ll at least all be able to catch up near the end of the binge.

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