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Sorting through ‘House of Cards,’ post-binge

This week I finally finished all 13 episodes of “House of Cards” — the Neflix drama starring Kevin Spacey — and much like Alan Sepinwall at Hitfix, I came away with my overall opinion largely unchanged from my original assessment of the first two. This is a solid show, but also one with some notable drawbacks, and the distribution pattern — making all the episodes available at once — somewhat obscured its dramatic merit, making the means of showcasing the program partially eclipse the content.

In short, I flipped through “Cards,” but not completely over it.

My colleague, AJ Marechal, distilled finishing “Cards” into six stages of grief. For me, absorbing the entire season left behind a few separate lines of thought, about the distribution scheme (no spoilers there), the show itself (some SPOILERS) and the longer-term impact.

The distribution. While I understand Netflix’s argument that its users are already well versed in the art of binge viewing, building that model around a new franchise appears overly ambitious. Moreover, powering through all 13 hours in a relatively short span felt less like a treat, in this case, than something of a chore — a homework assignment, albeit without a fixed due date. 

Being a critic, admittedly, makes that a different process, but I’m still not sure the show itself benefited from such concentrated exposure. If anything, some of the character flaws — particularly involving the reporter played by Kate Mara — and lapses seem magnified by viewing one hour after another.

Is there an intermediate path? Bunches of three or four episodes, instead of the whole enchilada? It’s certainly worth considering. But I tend to agree with Variety’s Andy Wallenstein in the conclusion the benefits of the binge experience are outweighed by the drawbacks.

The series. Spacey is an exceptionally compelling actor, which almost by itself made the show worth the time (his Southern drawl notwithstanding). Robin Wright and Corey Stoll were also quite good. 

That said, almost everything pertaining to the journalist, played by Mara, is slightly off-key, including (SPOILERS AHEAD) the fact her editor would call her the “C” word without expecting consequences or immediately apologizing profusely, and especially her unconvincing affair with Spacey’s character. Have we learned nothing since “Absence of Malice?” Clearly, women in the work force — especially journalists — can’t be trusted not to throw their ethics out the window and hop on their backs when there’s an attractive older man around. 

My biggest problem, though — even more than Spacey’s character breaking the fourth wall, which diminishes in later hours — is the fact the show never develops a truly worthy adversary for him. Yes, his plot to achieve power is extraordinarily intricate, and he’s utterly ruthless; yet one would think somebody else in D.C. would have the grit to challenge him, instead of being knocked over, all the way up to the Vice President, one hapless domino at a time.

The impact. If the Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman is to be believed, “House of Cards” has already had an impact in Washington, to go with the attention and front-page coverage heaped upon whether the show qualifies as a business game-changer. Journalists, meanwhile, continue to debate its depiction of the profession, and even if they think it’s lousy, there’s that old adage about any publicity being good publicity.

All that’s significant for Netflix as it braves original programming, which based on its hit-or-miss lineup of library offerings, the channel appears to need if it’s going to build or even retain market share.

So is “Cards” a success? Netflix won’t really say, following in the footsteps of the pay cable networks, which only like to discuss actual data when it suits them.

Weighing everything, the show appears to have yielded enough positives to justify the gamble. But as Vulture’s Josef Adalian asked when the program premiered, will Netlfix actually have an appetite to keep commissioning shows of this ambition? Whether that happens will ultimately answer whether this “House” was built on more than smoke and mirrors.

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