'House of Cards' deals tough hand

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Finishing the first season of a new and interesting TV show is almost always a collective experience. Debates with friends, family and co-workers rage on for months about which character will die, self-destruct or, in the case of "Lost," find a polar bear in the rainforest. No matter how badly a show tanks, season-long predictions are vindicated or vanquished and everyone has an opinion.

Netflix's new original series "House of Cards" didn't leave me with the usual sense of finality but instead with information I can't share, bruised friendships and that dull hangover you can get only by watching TV for six hours straight.

The series stars Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, a calculating, unflinchingly merciless House majority whip from South Carolina intent on exacting revenge on a newly elected president who reneged on a promise to make him secretary of state.

And unlike any other show on TV right now, its most important feature has little to do with the content itself and everything to do with the way it's being delivered -- and consumed.

All 13 episodes of the first season were released Feb. 1, the day it premiered, making it possible to irreverently "binge" through labyrinthine plot twists and subtle character developments with all the haste -- and glory -- of a mild substance abuse problem. (I couldn't help but feel a bit intoxicated after watching six episodes in a row last weekend.)

The experience is perfect for hapless undergrads, interns and TV writers who conveniently have consecutive six-hour blocks of unmediated discretionary time. I suspect few outside this demographic will consume a first-run series in such an irresponsible manner.

Of course, binge watching is nothing new. Networks tap our primal urge to watch endlessly by airing marathons of our favorite shows and releasing multiseason box sets. But those experiences tend to be celebrations of characters such as Jed Bartlet of "The West Wing," who have already been vetted and have maybe even met our parents.

Netflix lured me into speed dating "House of Cards" by automatically cueing up the next episode -- a maneuver that tempted me into uncomfortable situations that such a new relationship just wasn't ready to withstand.

I came home, for instance, to find one of my housemates sprawled across the couch, six episodes behind. After some light bickering, I was essentially forced to watch reruns of a show I started the day before.

I pleaded with all three of my cohabitants to show some commitment to Netflix's brilliant new content delivery scheme, but only one took the bait -- and even he fell many episodes behind, too far back to recover.

Two of them agreed to hear a quick-and-dirty synopsis of about four episodes' worth of plot, so they could watch the final three episodes with me. Needless to say, our discussion of the first season was impoverished.

Not only were they missing subtle developments that occurred between the episodes they skipped, but none of us had a chance to meaningfully reflect and argue about the characters' motives, the show's aesthetic and whether it's annoying that the show insists on breaking the fourth wall with Frank Underwood aphorisms.

This "episode lag"-- like Super Bowl tape delay on steroids -- reduced watercooler talk at work as well. Even my fellow TV-writing devotees could manage only two or three episodes at a time.

And forget talking to my parents. Though they bravely canceled their cable subscription at my urging for a streaming-only TV experience, they will watch a new episode only every few days.

Despite these drawbacks, Netflix is on to something. "House of Cards" is good enough to help nudge the traditional cable TV delivery mechanism off the cliff. I can only imagine that's part of Frank Underwood's plan.


Alex Zimmerman: azimmerman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @AGZimmerman. First Published February 8, 2013 5:00 AM


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