Remember when catching up on a TV show required numerous trips to Blockbuster in a single weekend? Us neither. For years we’ve been mainlining our television shows entire seasons at a time, thanks to the glories of video streaming. How else would anyone have made it through the dismal nadir of season three of “Lost”? What do you think got Americans addicted to “Downton Abbey”?
So when I sat down to watch the first episode of “House of Cards” on Saturday, as a way of killing laundry time, I didn’t expect I’d stretch the show out over the next 13 weeks, like I was watching “Dallas” circa 1982. But I also wasn’t planning to find myself awake at 2 a.m. last night, polishing off the last episode and frantically googling “house of cards season 2 please oh please tell me it’s coming soon.”
If this Wired poll of its readers is any indication, we’re not alone: 10.6 percent of viewers stopped after the first episode (what, you don’t like it when they break the fourth wall?), but a substantial number, 32.4 percent, had already polished off episode 13. Variety estimates a quarter of those who watched the first episode have already powered through the whole season.
But was the show any good? Good question. The chilly vibe makes it ideal viewing for a frigid winter weekend holed up inside your apartment. Kevin Spacey is smugly chummy enough that even his syrupy, fake-as-hell Southern accent is entertaining. A lot of the journalism is B.S. (free food at a newspaper? reporter, please), but “Grey’s Anatomy” isn’t reknowned for its medical accuracy either.
But “House of Cards” doesn’t have to be the most brilliant thing you’ve ever seen. It’s just got to be good enough to keep you clicking, then leave you wanting more, evangelizing to your friends (when you explain why you can’t make drinks after all), liking it on Facebook to silence the haters, and waking up late for work.
If I hadn’t crammed the whole show into just 72 hours–roughly the amount of time the Underwoods spend standing around their Restoration Hardware catalog of a home–it might have gotten laughable real quick. Bonus: no snarky recaps to make you question just what their big plan actually is.
More importantly, the show is on par with whatever you’d find on cable. There’s no whiff of direct-to-video/YouTube original content about “House of Cards.” No budget backdrops, no cheapskate score. In fact, its bona fides are better than a lot of what you’d see trotted out for the upfronts: Netflix got David goddamn Fincher to help make it, and Oscar winner Kevin Spacey heads up a cast where even the B-listers are good. The price tag, all told, was something like $100 million.
And as Tim Wu points out at the New Yorker, that makes all the difference. If Netflix can make the numbers work on cable-quality television, it means we’re “across a psychological line”:
But this year or next, cable companies will have to accept that they are no longer the gatekeepers for the best content. It means, eventually, that the industry will probably have to embrace the idea of simply carrying the content of others (which was its original business model), and essentially function as what used to be called an “Internet-service provider.”
According to this month’s GQ, Netflix ultimately hopes to be making five original series a year. It won’t be cheap or easy to pull off, but think of the money you cough up for premium cable, versus the number of shows you actually watch. Paying Netflix and Hulu $10 a month for a regularly-scheduled weekend timesuck starts sound pretty appealing–and that’s how the ground beneath the cable business crumbles.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, season one of Homeland isn’t going to watch itself.