Sunday, February 16, 2014

Binge Watching: House of Cards 2.0

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

"Mr. Vice-President... that is just shy of treason."

"Just shy. That's politics."


I've written extensively about the newest phenomena. Binge watching. In the 90s, we called it being a "stoner film/tv geek." Get a whole bunch of weed, a stack of VCR tapes (rentals from Blockbuster... remember those?) or DVDs, and sink into the couch for an extended viewing session that lasted until the weed ran out, or until you passed out.

Binge watching. Americans have voracious appetites for everything. Beer. Cigarettes. Hate. Fast food. Sports. Celebrity worship. Anything Kardashian. And kittens. Let's not forget about fucking kittens. Sometimes when I think the world is about to implode with a financial meltdown or the start of WW3, I look at a kitten and all those bad thoughts vanish and I think... awww how cute, wonder if little kitty knows how much we're fucked?

Ignorance is bliss.

Binge watching. Something sinister out of the minds of Orwell/Huxley (see Amusing Ourselves to Death). Humans addicted to consuming entertainment in copious amounts. But that's what we want, or at least, we think it is what we want. An escape. A cheap escape. Without having to acquire/pay for drugs/booze, but more importantly, a quick/easy escape without paying the high price of addiction. Life is harsh, so we want to just numb our senses. Losing yourself for a dozen hours into something else. You now have a legit excuse to go a little crazy and embrace your couch and the warm, loving glow of the TV/laptop screen.

Binge watching. It's fun. Trust me, I'm an addict. If you're gonna do something, go balls to the wall. Don't dabble. Fuck this one episode at a time bullshit. Go full-blown muthafucker insane over something. Like fist through a wall, or a Pookie-crack binge. Whether it's binging on kitten memes or playing pocket pool... bring it. Bring your A-game. If you're gonna do something, really fucking do it.

That's why binge watching is becoming a national obsession. It gives us an excuse to be gluttons. I love it. Binge watching is the combination of sloth and gluttony. It's the complete opposite of jogging or fitness fads like Jane Fonda aerobic VCR tapes, Chrissy from Three's Company pitching Thighmaster, that long-haired fitness freak Tony Little, Tae Bo, and the poor fucker who invented stationary bicycles. I'm sure there's a few serious A-type personalities that incorporated Netflix viewing to their workout routine, but for the most part Americans (and some Canadians too) buried their asses into a couch this weekend and watched 13 episodes of the new season of House of Cards.

Perfect timing. Three-day weekend (Presidents Day is a federal holiday on Monday) plus it's Valentine's Day. If you don't have someone special, then you had a date with Netflix. Then again, I was a rare lucky soul who had a significant other who also hated Valentine's Day and she wanted to avoid over-crowded restaurants in favor of getting blitzed on Bubba hash and binge-watching HOC.

HOC episodes are roughly 45 minutes (minus closing credits and FWD through the opening credits). Actual viewing time of all 13 episodes could be accomplished in approximately 10 hours. I think the average American watches around 33 hours of TV per week, or 4-5 hours per day. If the average person devotes their average daily viewing to HOC, then it will take about two full days to watch it all.

But some folks want to watch it all in one sitting. 13 at once. That's the point of these Netflix releases, right? I did it thrice. With both seasons of HOC and the last season of Arrested Development. (FYI... I slowly watched OITNB, but excited to see a second season coming.)

13 in a row? Really not that tough to accomplish considering someone like me from the "TV" generation (Donald Fagen refers to Gen Xers as "TV babies" because we were raised by television). I did not do it all at once. Rather, I probably banged it out over a 36 hour period. I watched the first episode within the first hour it was release, caught 10 more on Friday, and finished off the last 2 episodes on Saturday morning.

I was in bed and couldn't sleep the other night. I had gone to bed early to wake up and write. Nicky was sound asleep, but I couldn't pass out. I picked up my phone and realized that HOC season 2 was released at Midnight PT. All 13 episodes. It was almost 12:30am. I fired up the first episode and watched it via phone... in bed. When the first OMG moment happened, I click off and looked on Twitter and noticed that thousands of others had a similar reaction to a shocking reveal in the first episode.

It was funny, yet curious, to see how others reacted to the "OMG now fucking way!"moments in real time via Twitter. I felt there were two OMG moments... in the first episode and a later episode toward the end... and I could tell how far friends (and strangers) were based on similar reactions.

When Nicky woke up to go to work Friday, I encouraged her to watch the first episode over breakfast and coffee.

"Trust me. You don't want it to be ruined with spoilers by the time you get to work. Someone in your office might have stayed up to watch the first episode, or you'll find out about it via Twitter or those show biz sites you frequent."

Nicky reluctantly said yes. I felt she was humoring me more than anything. But after it was over, she was glad I told her to watch it. By the time she got home from work ten hours later, the word was out. She would have been spoiled.

Binge watchers. I'm one of those poor fucktards. Binge watchers devouring HOC in the first 16 hours were in a unique situation because they had free time and the ability to consume it all on a weekday (Friday). That group included students, unemployed, sick people, retirees, artist-types like myself, or folks who worked from home but decided to watch HOC instead.

For working class 9-5 folks, their first chunk of free time happened on Friday night when they got home (save for a few west coasters who watched an episode or three when it debuted at Midnight PT). Maybe those 9-5ers got as far as halfway on Friday night, but most likely they knocked out three or four episodes and finally polished it off on Saturday. I assume the majority of HOC consumers watched the bulk of the new season Saturday and completed it on Sunday. I'm sure Netflix has specific metrics. Would love to see those.

But I saw a shocking number.... 15% of ALL Netflix users watched the first episode of HOC within 24 hours of its release. Yes, so sick.

I also assume there were a bunch of people who simply didn't have the time (work, kids, Valentine's Day, holiday weekend, bad weather) to engage in binge watching, or in two/three batches. I'm sure they'll slowly watch it over this week and maybe spread it out over a month. But that's tough to do with the material for HOC.

Optimal viewing? Watch three at a time and then spend an hour going back over the previous episodes to watch anything you missed.

Of course, I had a rare chance to watch it twice in the first 48 hours. Nicky was on a much different schedule because of work. So I watched most of the episodes a second time on Friday night and again on Saturday when Nicky binge-watched. I tailed her binge! But for something like HOC, it was necessary so I could fill in the blanks and figure out shit I overlooked or missed.

HOC is broken up into chapters... not episodes... so it feels more like a novel. Sometimes chapters seem boring in books, but you can speed read, skim, or move on. Tough to do with a TV series if they are releasing them the old-fashioned way at one at a time at set intervals. As a novelist, I want to write short chapters to keep stuff moving along. But it's not easy with TV. Sometimes there are a few episodes in a series that seem like nothing is happening. Those are enough to alienate casual (or new) viewers. However, in a binge series like HOC, that snoozer of an episode represents a small portion of your viewing time that day, so it doesn't irk you as much.

With so much fucking entertainment available in the internet age coupled with reduction in attention spans in our ADHD culture, you better create something compelling otherwise you'll lose out to the alternative. You have to fight serious psychological disorders such as FOMO1 and the fact there's something else more exciting out there that is just a click away on the dial or via a rabbit hole search on YouTube.

Binge watching is not a brand-new 21st century invention. I can count days and weeks I lost watching college basketball since I was a wee one. March Madness is catered to hoops enthusiasts and it is a gambling junkie's wet dream.

In college, all we needed was a VCR and tapes to engage in binge-watching marathons. Usually it would be a bunch of Seinfeld eps or The Simpsons jammed onto a 6-hour VHS tape. I remember the time a couple friends of mine had some liquid sunshine and we were blotto forever it seemed, but still not completely sober so we rode out the buzz and watched Linklater's Dazed and Confused three times in a row before we felt like we could properly re-enter Earth's atmosphere. In between the second and third viewing, we went to McDonalds to get biscuits just after it opened at 6am. We then housed the biscuits and watched Wooderson and company for a third time.

When DVD technology came along, you could have binge on your favorite directors or blow through your entire library. Then entire TV shows were released via DVD, so you could catch up with an entire season in one sitting. DVD collections became an arbiter of taste and pop culture coolness. As my pal Shaniac said, "You used to be judged on what DVDs were on your shelf."

But those were the origins of binge watching. Technology and the internet aged ushered in opportunities to binge watch anything. Kitten videos. Hockey fights. Every episode of Cheers.


House of Cards is sort of like a postmodern version of Shakespeare blended with Machiavelli yet set in the treacherous hallways of DC. The original show appeared in the U.K. and was based on politics in the 80s. I still have yet to see that but I will try to binge watch that someday.

I adore the Claire character (Robin Wright). She's like Lady Macbeth meets Hilary Clinton on steroids. The true Ice Queen. And the Frank character (Kevin Spacey)? Sleazier than sleaze and corrupted as fuck all. He's the type of shifty guy who would fuck you in the ass and make you pay for the Vaseline. I love how the Frank character talks directly to the camera. Sometimes it feels like Ferris Bueller grew up to become a smarmy southern politician.

HOC almost made me miss the politics game. Almost. I studied southern politics under one of the greatest minds in the political science realm (Dr. Merle Black, who has a twin brother named Earl who is also a well-known poli sci professor at North Carolina). I never missed a Dr. Black lecture, which says something because I skipped class all the time in college to follow the Grateful Dead or bong out on the couch watching ski flicks like Aspen Extreme and Ski School. Seriously. I never went to class and found the littlest excuse to avoid a classroom. But Dr. Black's lectures were something I would never miss. Such a captivating speaker and he really explained how backroom politics really worked... and not how we thought politics worked after being brainwashed by the MSM. I learned more about politics through Dr. Black (his courses and reading his books) and reading Fear and Loathing On the Campaign Trail '72 book2 than anything else combined.

I was thisclose to pursuing a career in politics. Not as a politician, but using my poli sci degre as a minion. I had worked on two congressional campaigns in college. I guess I'm a mush. Both my candidates lost, including Ben Jones, otherwise known as Cooter from Dukes of Hazzard. Jones was the incumbent (he served two terms as a congressman from Georgia), but he got stomped (only winning 33%) by his opponent, a fellow named... Newt Gingrich.... who was more crooked and twisty than Lombard Street (in San Francisco). I had hoped Jones would win his re-election bid, because I would have hit him up for a job after college, but I backed the wrong pony in that race. Instead of sticking around Atlanta and working tirelessly on different elections, I put aside politics and migrated north. I returned to my hometown of NYC to pursue a career on Wall Street (with a pitstop at an art museum while I was procrastinating the inevitable recruitment as a bankster). In college, I figured I'd be a pollster or grunt in the trenches. I could only imagine a potential career trajectory if I stuck around Atlanta and became one of those congressional staffers... I'd be 41, wearing cheap suits, gobbling pills and writing speeches for low-hanging fruit in DC.

It's funny that House of Cards is a show about politics. Sure, it's fictional and waaaaaay out there, but it's funny how we're being constantly distracted. Sleight of hand. Divisive politics. The powers that be don't want you to pay attention to their affairs. They want to keep you occupied and busy. They don't want you to have free time to think, because if you actually think about things... you start to realize what's really going on and how bad they've been fucking you and lying to your faces.Then there are some people, a small group of folks who figured shit out and know exactly what's up, but they know better than to rock the boat. It's like some Sun Tzu shit about not fighting battles you can't win, but focusing on winning the war. Well, it's better to just load up the bong and binge watch a show about crooked politicians than to actually try to oust those slithery used-car salesmen in DC.


1. Huxley is laughing right now at that big bar in the sky where other writers hang out, drink forever without getting hungover, and troll on hacks like Ayn Rand.

2.  Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 was actually the first time I read anything by Hunter S. Thompson, but it was not on Dr. Black's syllabus. I read it for a different poli sci class.

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