I am not a House of Cards fanatic. Nor am I a binge-watcher. So as people hunkered down this weekend to watch 13 hours of Kevin Spacey purring at the camera, it became more and more obvious to me that Netflix's system has eliminated, to an extent, the casual viewer of the streaming service's shows.
Let's back up. When I say I am not a binge watcher, I do not mean I haven't at times plowed through a show in rapid succession. I, for instance, watched all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the course of about six months. That's a lot of TV in that time period, but it wasn't a purposeful binge. I just wanted to know what happened next and chose not to watch much else during that period. I come closest to bingeing when I want to spend copious amounts of time with characters: Buffy's Scooby gang, the kids of Veronica Mars, the citizens of Pawnee, Indiana, the ladies of that other Netflix show Orange Is the New Black. The villainy of Frank Underwood is not something I want swirling in my head for an uninterrupted 13-hour period.
The arguments against binge viewing are nothing new. As David Carr wrote last year when House of Cards emerged, the Netflix system does away with the digital water cooler element of conversation. When Netflix released Arrested Development this past summer, Mark Harris at Entertainment Weekly wrote that "the new Arrested Development episodes remind us, moderation is wise." Way back in 2012, Jim Pagels made the case against bingeing, reminding people that "episodes have their own integrity, which is blurred by watching several in a row." That's remains true even for a show like House of Cards, where bingeing is explicitly encouraged. As a person against bingeing, I stand by all these arguments.
And yet, as someone who chose not to obsessively watch House of Cards this weekend—mind you, I was also late in finishing the first season—I can't help but feel a little bit like Netflix's system shows little care for viewers like me, viewers who aren't obsessed with a show but find it interesting enough to want to follow. And the truth of the matter is, Netflix doesn't really give a damn about catering to these interests, especially since I'm already a subscriber, and subscriptions are their main measurement of success. As Rebecca Greenfield explained in The Wire last year, Netflix wants to appeal to niches "in the hopes that all these niches, bought with millions in licensing and marketing costs for high-quality original programming, will combine to give millions of users fewer and fewer reasons to cancel, and more and more reason to talk about Netflix — maybe all in a burst, but in one really big burst, with each new big show." Netflix doesn't report its ratings, so it doesn't really matter how many people are watching House of Cards in its first weekend, versus how many people are continuing watching it over time.
There's an argument that House of Cards is best consumed in one big gulp. Richard Lawson wrote at Vanity Fair: "With all its erratic veering in tone and scope, the show’s thick, soupy mix of melodrama, intrigue, and political farce is still probably best consumed in one or two feverish sittings, before you have too much time to actually pick apart what it is you’ve been served." That, in a way, means there's not a lot of room for the casual, yet interested viewer, and it maybe doesn't speak so highly for the show. Because House of Cards, despite the Netflix of it, is still just a TV show, made in 13 different installments. It's not a 13-hour movie, even though that's what it has, in a sense, been made out to be by its fans.
I am planning to watch this season of House of Cards at a much faster pace than I did the last. I've already watched the first episode, so I know that thing that happens. I know there are some taking it in slowly. HitFix's Alan Sepinwall has said he's going to "take [his] time with the rest of the season." Still, I wonder how fast I'll actually go, without a weekly date encouraging me to tune in.