By now we’re all accustomed to binge watching. Netflix has been offering Video on Demand and streaming services since 2007, so we’ve had eight years in which our understanding of viewing our favourite programs has moved away from the format of enjoying one episode a week. It makes sense that an audience would want to follow the full story at their leisure. Chapter by chapter serials have largely fallen out of favour, with readers more commonly preferring to read full novels. In the gaming community, attempts by studios to release games in smaller chunks have been met with criticism, such as with Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeros.
Naturally, the change in format affects how we experience the product. Stephen King’s serial novel The Green Mile reads differently than his stand alone novels, such as Misery. In much the same way, weekly television shows have to hold our attention longer than Netflix’s House of Cards. If an episodic show isn’t exciting for just one week it can dampen the viewers interest. Maybe the viewer even forgets to tune in the following week. By releasing all of the episodes at once, Netflix bypasses that problem. There is less pressure on House of Cards to provide quality content episode to episode. It’s episodes only have to keep you invested for ten seconds rather than one week.
That’s not to say that House of Cards episodes could be complete rubbish and people would still watch. Some people might but most would just stream something else. But the hook only has to be immediately interesting, not something that it going to keep coming to mind several days later. The death of Zoey Barnes in season two is a prime example of a hook that made me desperate to watch the next episode. It was powerful, unexpected and game-changing. It’s not just the death of a major character, because that’s often superficial and nothing more than shock value, but this displayed that House of Cards wasn’t afraid to upset the status quo.
And that’s where House of Cards’ third season misses the boat. I wasn’t excited to watch another episode until perhaps episode three after the negotiations between Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood and the Russian President. Those first two episodes are good, better than some of the series’ you’ll see on basic television, but the show is going through the motions. The first episode in particular is all about moving set pieces into place and preparing for the season ahead. But I was able to watch the first episode and say, ‘ok cool’ then go away and do something more important and come back and watch the second episode when I had time. Usually, if I’m invested in a show and there are more episodes available, I’ll be calculating in my mind when I’ll have time to watch it and looking forward to it.
Another character death would not solve the problem, don’t get me wrong. There doesn’t need to be another huge upheaval of the status quo because Frank’s move to the White House is pretty big as far as changes go. But it all seems a little predictable. He’s the President that no one voted for, so of course he’s unpopular with the American people. The opposition will use this to their own advantage to win the next election, as you would expect. Even his own party want a new face, because they didn’t want him in office and they want to stand a chance against the republicans at the next election. The conflict with Russia is the first plot point that wasn’t readily apparent before the new season began.
Thanks to the format, Netflix can get away with a lacklustre few episodes for House of Cards but I don’t believe they should accept that. They should want every episode to be the best the audience has ever seen, that every episode should be trending and talked about on twitter. Consider the Breaking Bad episode, ‘Fly’. Reactions to the that episode are divided, with some calling it slow and filler, while others consider it artful and emotional. But those first episodes of House of Cards aren’t going to split opinions. Viewers might agree that the episodes are good but no one is going to label them great.
What is it that keeps them from greatness? Robin Wright is fantastic in the role of Claire Underwood, but her attempt to be appointed to the U.N. is just dull. It’s all politics and while it’s fun to watch Frank bully and outmaneuver his opponents, much of Claire’s story requires her to answer questions, make calls and try not to step on any toes. Molly Parker comes across as tepid in the role of Jackie Sharp. I liked her in season two and while I feel that her story in season three will be significant, I’m really struggling to care about the character. While the losses of Peter Russo and Zoey Barnes were integral to the story, they brought a level of charisma and the underdog effect that is largely missing from this third season. It’s similar to the effect of losing Jimmy Darmody had on Boardwalk Empire.
Perhaps the more puzzling change is the character of Frank Underwood. We expect our leaders to be relatable and to represent the needs of the people because he understands his people. It was compelling to see Frank become President specifically because he cares only about his own power and because he is the most inhuman person on the show. He’s had his moments in prior seasons but he’s never seemed more vulnerable than in the opening episodes of season three. I don’t expect him to be a mustache twirling villain but crying is so uncharacteristic of Frank Underwood that its actually jarring to watch.
This is a solid entry into the House of Cards series. A lack of new, engaging characters for the audience to root for hurts the overall appeal, as does a lack of episode to episode quality. The sum of the parts is highly enjoyable though and Kevin Spacey once again owns the role. And now that Bryan Cranston has moved on from Breaking Bad, perhaps Spacey is finally in with a shot at the Emmy.