Politics & Policy

House of Cards’ Most Fiendish Plot of All

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in House of Cards
Binge-viewing’s cool...until somebody gets hurt

The dark forces behind House of Cards hate us. They are contemptuous, vengeful, and premeditating. They view us with scorn. They want us to suffer.

But the evil doesn’t come in the form of political scandal or backstabbing. Instead it’s something commentators think is revolutionary and fans find fascinating — the show’s all-at-once, binge-viewing release schedule.

“Human beings like control,” Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos told The New Republic in a December article about the company’s on-demand series release pattern, in which the entire season is put out at once, for viewers to watch on their own schedules. “To make all of America do the same thing at the same time is enormously inefficient, ridiculously expensive, and most of the time, not a very satisfying experience.”

#ad#But strangely enough, House of Cards has succeeded spectacularly in getting all of America (or at least the percentage of Americans who are hooked on House of Cards) to do one thing at the same time: binge-watch House of Cards as soon as it’s released, then litter the world with spoilers, giveaways, live-tweeted reactions and reviews that can’t help but influence your enjoyment of the show.

It seems like a mathematical impossibility, but if you haven’t watched the whole season of House of Cards ten minutes after it comes out, you’re screwed.

Everyone seems to agree that House of Cards is an amazing show. Some people hate it because it makes female journalists look slutty (fair criticism), because it’s an unrealistic portrayal of the evil of American politicians (eh, fair criticism), or because it’s an unrealistic portrayal of the intelligence and effectiveness of American politicians (an accurate, valid, indisputably correct criticism). I imagine lots of other people hate it for lots of other reasons.

That doesn’t change that it’s an amazing show. Even if you bristle at the suggestion that all successful female Washington journalists must be sleeping with Kevin McCarthy, House of Cards grabs you by the eyeballs. If you gaze too long into House of Cards, House of Cards gazes also into you.

But when a new season drops, thousands (at least thousands!) of Americans turn into pinwheel-eyed, drooling goons who have no choice but to quarantine themselves — squinting into their greasy, fingerprint-smudged laptop screens, probably ignoring the biological imperatives to eat meals and take bathroom breaks and respond to urgent phone calls from their mothers — so they can watch twelve hours (plus or minus) of instantly streaming television.


The irony of House of Cards’ presentation — which, actually, I believe is a conspiracy, not an irony — is this: The show is a really bleak, ugly depiction of human nature as fundamentally base, corruptible, and malignant. You don’t write the character of Claire Underwood if you don’t think people are basically either weak or evil.

So let’s extrapolate a little and assume that the House of Cards’ writers feel the same way about their viewers as they do about their characters (not a huge logical leap). That would mean that the necromancers behind this show have a pretty lousy view of those of us who started refreshing the Netflix homepage at 2:58 a.m. on February 14. They know we are weak. They know we are frail. They know we are hungry for the show.

Now consider this: If you were the person in charge of making, marketing, and then releasing House of Cards, and you believed that the art you made was at least somewhat true, and you believed that the future consumers of your art were normal humans with normal human failings and normal human weaknesses, then how would you distribute it?

This, I submit, is the answer: You would distribute it in one of two ways, depending on whether you were a benevolent person or a vindictive monster. If you were benevolent, you would release House of Cards at the normal pace that all sensible television shows have followed since the time of Shakespeare. You would set up your Netflix doohickey so we could get our House of Cards fix once a week for thirteen weeks, and had something to lend our lives hope and joy and glee. You would recognize that there is nothing better than wanting something really badly and then getting it, and you would kindly decide to let people with House of Cards problems experience that delight in thirteen small, emotionally manageable doses.

HOWEVER: The people who make House of Cards are not nice people. They are vindictive monsters. We know they are vindictive monsters because they take this really good, really gripping, really intense show and release twelve-odd hours of it all at once, destroying weekends, ruining social lives, wrecking all our circadian rhythms and work/life balance and good time-management habits. Fans are reduced to twitching, fidgeting weirdos who can’t contribute anything to normal conversations except “Have You Watched House of Cards Yet” or “Wasn’t The First Episode CRAZY” or “No I Can’t Hang Out With You, I’m Really Really Busy Tonight I Promise.”

It’s not nice. Frank Underwood laughs at us, and the House of Cards creators laugh at us, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Please, Netflix, please: Show some grace. Save us from ourselves. Release Season 3 at a merciful pace.

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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