House of Cards premiered its first season last year in February by riding a publicity wave as Netflix’s first all-original, all-release series. With a budget set at $100 million, it was a risky business venture that paid off. The show earned multiple nominations in the Primetime Emmy and Golden Globe Awards, and won a handful. Social media buzzed, millions more subscribed, and Netflix stock shot up.
Now on its second season, released Feb. 14, House of Cards will have to ride on its own merit, and it will. Even after gorging on the entire season for 13 hours with bleary eyes and numbing muscles, I found HoC riveting. Created by Beau Willimon (who had stints working in two Democratic Senate and two presidential campaigns, including for Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean), HoC has sharp writing, brilliant acting, and politicking that reflects real-life events such as the Affordable Care Act debacle and government shutdowns.
Think of HoC as The West Wing antithesis. West Wing presents an inspirational government through the highly likeable President Josiah Bartlett, whose White House staff of bleeding heart, do-gooding liberals sigh and monologue about honor, integrity, and equality. Not so for HoC: Lead character Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is a Democrat and former House majority whip who, after being passed over for secretary of state, goes on a convoluted revenge rampage.
Though unlikeable, Frank is a fascinating character, especially when he’s calculating with his wife Claire (Robin Wright). The two form an utterly twisted but strangely working marriage, in which they share a common goal to become the power couple in Washington. Their world is dark, devoid of redemption or humility. Everybody else in Washington, even the media, scampers after self-glorifying personal agendas, unaware or yielding pawns to Frank’s Machiavellian game of “ruthless pragmatism.”
Most chilling is Frank’s rather gleeful acknowledgment of his diabolicalness. In one scene, Frank struts into an empty cathedral, stands before the pulpit, and states, “Every time I’ve spoken to you, you’ve never spoken back—although given our mutual disdain, I can’t blame you for the silent treatment.” Then he looks at us—the viewers—and smirks, “Perhaps I’m speaking to the wrong audience.” He turns his gaze down—to hell—and calls, “Can you hear me? Are you even capable of languages, or do you only understand depravity?”
That’s another Shakespearean quirk of HoC, to have the main character wink and converse with the show’s audience. By breaking that fourth wall, Frank stretches his manipulative hands to viewers. Like a great chess master, he delights in divulging his strategies, tricks of the trade, and zingy one-liners.
After 13 hours of Frank’s puppetry, however, perverse depravity reaches its pits. How much darker can darkness get? It points to a truth: that human sin is boring, unexciting, trite—only various shades of the same color. If there’s any value to an all-out consumption of HoC (not recommended), it’s that you don’t get a break from sin—and you start to wonder: What is the meaning of all this obsession, fear, anger, and brokenness? The show is entertaining, but by episode eight, a craving for meaningful, colorful grace gets louder and louder.
Of course, that wasn’t the intention behind Netflix’s move to release all 13 episodes of a new season in a day. The roll-out is an innovative but unsurprising business strategy. Consumers increasingly value autonomy in consumption, from TiVo to subscription-based online streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, and Redbox Instant. Even traditional linear TV distributors such as HBO are offering online streaming. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings calls it “the future of television.”
There’s one flaw: Not everybody has the desire or time to sit through 13 hours of TV over the weekend, but many still fear spoilers or missing the “freshness” of a show. The howl over last season’s spoilers on social media prompted Netflix to build “Spoiler Foiler,” a special Twitter feed that obliterates annoying spoiler tweets on your timeline. President Obama’s tweet—“Tomorrow: @HouseofCards. No spoilers, please”—got about 41,000 retweets and 23,200 favorites. Hopefully, our president can pace himself.