We like to watch

House of Cards, Downton Abbey, The Walking Dead and other conundrums of 21st-century TV.

click to enlarge CARDS SHARK: The Frank Underwood character proves that nobody does smarmy Southern charm like Kevin Spacey. - Melinda Sue Gordon for Netflix
Melinda Sue Gordon for Netflix
CARDS SHARK: The Frank Underwood character proves that nobody does smarmy Southern charm like Kevin Spacey.

It had gotten out of hand. So many people in the CL offices were talking about the new Netflix series House of Cards — or trying not to talk about it, in case the person in the next cubicle hadn’t started watching or had just gotten to episode 2 or just didn’t want to hear about TV at all — that we had to let it all out.

What follows are a series of short meditations on the topic, beginning with thoughts from new Daily Loaf blogger and early House of Cards adopter Erik Hahmann, who watched the whole series the first weekend it was out. The rest of us are at various points in the HoC journey (note the number of episodes watched before the author names below), and of several minds about the experience — not just of this particular series, but of TV-watching in general.

Do we binge? Do we take it slow? Do we go on a crash diet for the sake of our own sanity? One thing’s for sure — the TV landscape is in a permanent state of flux.

13: Erik Hahmann

Netflix released all 13 episodes of its original drama House of Cards on Fri., Feb. 1. I’d finished watching them all by Sunday night.

I was left with a strange feeling, though. An emptiness. Who do I talk about the show with? I had to be one of the few people in America who had finished the series that quickly. I couldn’t tweet about the fantastic performance Kevin Spacey gave as Frank Underwood, or how Kate Mara was brilliant in episode seven. I couldn’t read reviews from critics. Years of TV-watching in the 21st century had conditioned me to expect a sort of instant gratification with the post-show experience. I had gotten what I wanted — every episode of the season delivered to me at once — but was ultimately left a bit unsatisfied.

The Walking Dead, which debuted to a series record 12.3 million viewers, doesn’t suffer from that problem. Within minutes of its airing, any media outlet you could find was buzzing about what had just transpired: What is Daryl thinking? Is Rick going to snap? Hell, AMC even airs Talking Dead, where a panel discusses the events of the previous hour, immediately after the latest episode. There’s nothing more instant gratification-y than that. The problem is, you have to wait a week for the next episode.

Each way has its advantages. If you’re following a show week to week, when a big event happens you’re able to share that with everyone. The finales of The Sopranos and Lost were huge social media events. If you hadn’t seen either of them, in the day, or even hours, afterward you were seemingly exiled from society. I should know; I didn’t watch either show as it aired and had to experience those moments alone years after the fact.

Binge-watching allows you to experience something at your own pace without the pressure of tuning in at a certain date and time. I’ll watch Girls at my own pace, Internet.

Appointment TV is never going away. But with the success of Netflix’s streaming service, House of Cards, and the return of Arrested Development, binge-watching is here to stay, too. Amazon is even getting into the original programming business, having ordered six pilots into production that will be available only via Prime Instant Video.

We’re a society that’s advancing. The only wrong choice is not to watch.

8: Joe Bardi

I must confess: I have binged before, most notably on the first two seasons of Lost, which I consumed over several insane summer weekends before the premiere of Season Three. That was back in my single days, when I was a professional binge-watcher with a four-disc-at-a-time Netflix account. Now I’ve got a wife and a kid and no time for anything, much less 12 continuous hours of couch-sinking. I thought I had given up binge-watching forever.

Then came House of Cards, which seems designed for marathon viewing. I relapsed hard, and started mainlining episodes over the Feb. 8-10 weekend (one week after the show became available for streaming on Netflix Instant). If my son was napping, Daddy was cramming in an episode. When he went to bed for the night, I’d watch two or three in a row. Before I knew it, I had seen the first eight installments. Only five to go. The end was in sight.

But then a funny thing happened: I stopped. Not because I got bored or decided I didn’t like House of Cards. To the contrary, It’s Grade-A material. Nobody does smarmy Southern charm like Kevin Spacey, and the supporting players and twisted plotlines are fabulous. No, what slowed me down was the thought that I was going too fast. I wasn’t savoring each episode, thinking about it afterward, chewing on it. The nuance of the show was becoming lost on me.

By Episode Seven it was all starting to run together: Frank Underwood hatches a devious plan, said plan verges on falling apart, Frank figures a way — usually the most unseemly way possible — to salvage it. Episode ends, and the Netflix-provided countdown to the next episode begins anew. I needed to take a breath.

Now I’m saving those last five episodes. I’ll get to them eventually, and I’ll enjoy the hell out of them. But once Episode 13 has come and gone, that’s it for some time — perhaps as long as a year (Netflix has paid for another 13 episodes, but they haven’t even begun shooting them yet). Better to wean myself off slowly. As I learned from Lost, binge-watcher withdrawal is a bitch.

11: David Warner

I’m at a crucial House of Cards moment.

With 11 episodes down and two to go, I now know what happens to a key figure in the series.

But — HOUSE OF CARDS SPOILER ALERT, SORT OF — I can’t say I was shocked.

As for what just happened on Downton Abbey — DOWNTON ABBEY SPOILER ALERT, DEFINITELY — now that was a shock.

The death of Matthew Crawley was foreshadowed, but only if you’d heard that actor Dan Stephens had not signed up for Season 4. Even then you figured that the reason for Matthew’s departure from the series would be divorce, or bankruptcy, or a maybe a nice vacation in America. The producers had already killed lovely Lady Sibyl; they wouldn’t bump off the series’ romantic hero, too, would they? But then, as the season finale was drawing to a close, there was Matthew, driving blithely along in his motorcar, and you knew this would not end well.

Many thousands of fans have expressed outrage at this development, mostly along the lines of Facebook posts like “Matthew? NOOOOOOOoooooooo....!” I wasn’t angry, just surprised — and sad. I liked Matthew, and not just because of that fabulous hair. Maybe the ending heaped a little bit too much woe on one family to be believable, but it still left me intrigued by what will happen to everyone — to Mary, to Matthew’s mother, to Downton — in Season Four, many months from now.

Which brings me back to House of Cards.

The thing about this series is that it’s so drenched in dread, and the main protagonists are so ruthless, that you pretty much are expecting from the first episode that something awful is going to happen to someone. And it does. And probably will again.

I’m reserving judgment until I see episodes 12 and 13, but the difference I’m realizing between the House of Downton and the House of Cards is that, actually, I don’t much care what happens to the HoC people. I’m fascinated by Kevin Spacey’s latest variation on oily villainy. I’m even more fascinated by Robin Wright’s icy control. The insider view of Congressional machinations is scarily credible, the characters’ motivations in both the political and journalistic spheres believably flawed and complex.

But will I miss them when they’re gone? Time will tell. But it occurs to me that I might be more obsessed with HoC if I hadn’t watched it so obsessively — if I’d given myself more time between episodes so I didn’t weary of the doom-laden visuals or the legislative sausage-making.

I know I’m going to finish it. But maybe if I’d watched it the way I watched Downtown Abbey — one episode at a time, with about a week between each — I might be enjoying myself more.

Maybe binge-watching isn’t good for you — or for the series you’re watching.

UPDATE: OK, I took some time, returned to Netflix to watch the final two episodes, and boy, were they good. Some of the best writing in the series so far, including the introduction of a worthy opponent for Spacey’s Congressman Underwood, a tycoon masterfully underplayed by Gerald McRaney. And yes, there’s a cliffhanger, or actually cliffhangers — but the intrigue is not so much in what does happen but in what hasn’t happened — yet. I am now officialy hooked.

26: Arielle Stevenson

First off, I’ve been told to confess that I’ve watched all 13 nearly-hour long episodes of House of Cards twice. But, I don’t have cable (or broadcast) television and Netflix (alongside Crackle and Hulu) is my primary form of media digestion. I am a binge-watcher. If I can’t stream all the episodes at once, I probably won’t watch it. Some call it obsession; I call it dedication.

I was a diehard fan of Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing. But I never really noticed just how patriotic West Wing was until I watched House of Cards. As I watched the characters fall from grace at a skydive-like pace, I kept thinking, this could really happen. Worse, this may have happened already and we don’t even know about it, given the historical evidence of democracy’s underbelly. At first it’s fun, but the darkness that results toward the later half of the show is unsettling. Leading the charge is the incredibly conniving Congressman Francis “Frank” Underwood (Kevin Spacey). Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) is a smoking hot, ice cold powerhouse. To call Frank and Claire a power couple would be the understatement of the century; they are the power couple. But their romance lacks just that: romance. It seems more like a business arrangement.

Kate Mara (who played crazy ex-lover Hayden on American Horror Story) is the enterprising young reporter Zoe Barnes. As a young enterprising female reporter myself, I was disappointed by how they decided to play her storyline. Do people really do that for information? Or is it just a very played-out stereotype that persists from past male-dominated media regimes?

It comes up again and again, and not just with Zoe but other female characters in the story. For a show so groundbreaking, honest and “progressive,” I was disappointed to find many of the women on their knees or with legs spread. Sex is used as manipulation at too many turns.

But to call all the female characters conniving sex fiends would be very wrong. These are very real, very complex characters navigating through the bullshit of life. So real compared to the many femmes that plague storylines still. While I still smell a penis behind the pen, I love how the women eventually turn the tables on the show’s overly ambitious politico-males.

Scroll to read more Events & Film articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.