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Beware of the binge

Netflix political drama House of Cards has its charms, but it's best not to gorge on it

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Netflix is an online provider that lets you stream movies and television on multiple devices. This is an absolutely swell service -- ask anyone who's had a weekend binge of Breaking Bad or Mad Men or The Walking Dead. But because it involves content that's already played somewhere else, it lacks cachet. It doesn't get much attention. Enter House of Cards, a Netflix original series.

Since Netflix is in the business of changing people's viewing habits, it offered a new model for watching House of Cards. On Feb. 1, it released the first season of the series all at once, allowing subscribers to watch the 13 episodes any time and any way they wanted.

This seems like a good fit for an impatient, on-demand culture. My own first response was to gulp down this Washington-set political drama like a guilty pleasure. But once I slowed up a bit -- at about Episode 6 -- I wondered how well this new House holds up. And how my response might be affected by the way I was watching it.

House of Cards has several things going for it.

It has a good pedigree:

The series is based on a 1990 British original in which Ian Richardson gave a career-best performance as a malevolent politician. The American version, scripted by Beau Willimon (The Ides of March) and overseen by director David Fincher (The Social Network), respects its roots while updating the action. It doesn't quite match the gleefully wicked tone of the British original, but it does manage to maintain the pitch-black attitude towards politics and power.

It has Kevin Spacey being bad:

Sure, he occasionally tries to play noble, but we love Spacey best when he's bitchy. Here he plays Frank Underwood, a cynical veteran of Washington politics and the House majority whip. Frank is calculating, contemptuous, conniving, practically carnivorous. And he addresses the audience directly -- a trick pulled from the original series -- pulling us into his amoral universe.

It has Robin Wright, also being bad:

We're used to Spacey being evil, but Robin Wright, who plays Claire Underwood, is going magnificently against type. After all, Wright is the Princess Bride. She's Mrs. Forrest Gump. And now she's like the Lady Macbeth of the Beltway, scheming with her husband for political ascendancy. Wright's steely 40-something beauty is far more interesting than her youthful prettiness ever was, and she has a lot to do: Her part has been considerably expanded from the BBC original.

The series also has problems.

It has a contrived boomers vs. millennials subplot:

Frank plots his betrayals with the help of strategic leaks and planted stories, so he needs a media mouthpiece. He finds it in journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a millennial on the make.

Twenty-something Zoe wanders around her newsroom in a hoodie, complaining that print journalism is dead. Meanwhile, her crusty old newspaper editor calls Zoe "an ungrateful, self-entitled little (unprintable)" and looks like he's pining for the days of Watergate. He also believes that social media is a passing fad. The script really works the generation gap, while somehow managing to get both sides wrong.

It doesn't have much sense of humour:

The U.K. series kept up a fast, sharp satirical undertone that helped paper over the gaps in plot plausibility. Fincher and Willimon tend to play it heavy and serious, and the realism really strains at points. House of Cards is clever, but not as clever as it thinks.

Caught between highs and lows, buildups and letdowns, I found I reached a personal stalemate at Episode 8. (Or maybe my eyes were just really, really tired.) Funny things can happen when you start condensing what was once weeks of television into a day. It's easy to get hepped on the good stuff. It's even easier, maybe, to be driven to distraction by little faults. I wonder if marathon-viewing -- which is the genius of the Netflix system, after all -- is particularly unkind to uneven series. I wonder if I've managed to stick with a frustratingly erratic series like Downton Abbey for three seasons because it's been safely parcelled out in seven-day intervals.

House of Cards spends a lot of time exploring the whole new media/old media theme, probably because the series itself, and the way it has been developed and distributed by Netflix, is an example of a new-media model fighting against established conventions.

As Netflix's first original series, House of Cards offers the lure of instant gratification, and that's probably the way of the future. But to really work it needs to be as binge-worthy as the best old-school weekly television is, and that's tough.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2013 E3

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