(Photo courtesy of manybits)
I’m missing out on a moment today.
When House of Card debuted to considerable fanfare last February, I did not have access to a Netflix account or the money necessary to acquire such access. I observed from the sidelines as the binge-watchers tore through each episode, finishing the series within one weekend. I observed as the show faded from the pop culture conversation as people moved on to other things (binge-watching Arrested Development). I observed as binge-watch skeptics (I would count myself among them, to an extent) finished the series at their own leisurely pace. I observed as the show became the first streaming-only, television-scale scripted series to merit serious consideration at the Emmys and the Golden Globes.
And then I was granted access to a Netflix account. But I didn’t start with House of Cards. I started with Orange is the New Black, by far the most warmly reviewed series of Netflix’s modern foray into “television.” Then I worked my way through the dense fourth season of Arrested Development, marveling at the massively complex puzzle structure while sometimes wondering why it had been seventeen minutes since I’d laughed.
And finally, I got to House of Cards.
I watched four episodes. I might have watched more, but the end of winter break and the beginning of my spring semester loomed. Tough decisions had to be made. And I decided I’d seen enough of House of Cards to know that I wasn’t clamoring to finish it.
And you know what? That’s fine. It’s not a knock against people who like it much more than I do. It’s not a knock against the people who have taken to Facebook and Twitter over the last twenty four hours to commiserate about that twist or that quote or that character. It’s not even a knock against the show itself, not really. It’s an assessment of my personal tastes and my critical analysis of a show that, in its first four episodes, presented little to me that I hadn’t already seen before in more interesting packages.
I’ll tell you what I don’t like about the show, but that’s almost beside the point. I’m trying to say that I don’t have to like a show just because you do, and the opposite is true as well. I’m not wrong for saying that I’m going to sit out House of Cards, even though lots of people tell me it’s great. There’s an infinite number of other things I can choose to watch or listen to instead, and I’ll never get to even a tiny fraction of them. (NPR’s Linda Holmes wrote a great essay about this very subject.)
So if you’re like me, and you don’t watch House of Cards, don’t feel like you have to. You don’t have to do anything. It’s a free country. To quote the modern poet Miley Cyrus, it’s your party, you can do what you want. And if your party doesn’t include House of Cards, you’re no less a human being than the rest of the world.
Quickly, my House of Cards qualms:
*I’m not that interested in Frank Underwood. He’s not an antihero or a quasi-villain – he’s just a villain, and a two-dimensional one. There’s nothing wrong with that in theory, but watching him go through the same motions during each of the four episodes I watched didn’t engage me. (And don’t get me wrong: two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey is not the problem. He attacks his theatrical dialogue with a ravenous flourish. But after four episodes, I felt I’d seen that flourish one too many times.)
*I understand that modern serialized television can be more interesting as a collective whole than as a series of individual episodes with their own merits, but Robin Wright’s intriguing performance as Claire Underwood was utterly wasted in a string of dull, shapeless subplots about her clean water initiative. I’m told these things pay off down the line, but I need to be engaged enough to want to go down that line, and I just wasn’t.
*What is this show really saying about American politics? That everyone in Congress is corrupt, self-serving and power hungry? That the only way to enact measurable change is to be a borderline-psychopath who will do anything to get ahead? Those ideas are as nuance-free as The West Wing has been accused of being in its worst moments. Looking back, I can almost view Frank Underwood as the Jordan Belfort of politics – they’re motivated by different desires, but their attempts to subvert the system from within are similar. But The Wolf of Wall Street is far more electrifying and (in my eyes) interested in the complexities of the character than House of Cards is.
*My favorite character in the first four episodes was Peter Russo, played by the terrific Corey Stoll (Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and soon to be the star of FX’s vampire drama The Strain.) I’ve been spoiled about the most “shocking” development in the first season, which is Russo’s death at the hands of Frank himself. Killing off the show’s most sympathetic character? Not a smart move.
*Final assessment of the first four episodes: I felt like I was watching a very good show in theory and an acceptable but less than thrilling one in practice. The superficial elements are in place: prestigious directors (most notably David Fincher for the first two episodes), talented writer (Beau Willimon), interesting actors (Spacey, Wright, Stoll and Kate Mara as well), high-minded dialogue, an unconventional structural device (breaking the fourth wall). But I wasn’t invested in the show beneath its shiny surface.
Many of you like House of Cards more than I do. So tell me why! But approach it the right way. Don’t try to convince me that I’m wrong, because it’s not a matter of right and wrong. Argue in defense of House of Cards. What merits I have missed? Why don’t I like it as much as you do? I’ve got all weekend!