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'House of Cards' and the Netflix Viewing Conundrum

Will you marathon all 13 episodes? Will you watch at your leisure? And how will social media change the dynamics?

David Fincher Netflix Illustration - P 2012
Illustrated by Alex Fine
David Fincher

Now that Netflix has entered the content-creator business in a huge way with the release of all 13 episodes of the acclaimed drama House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey and directed by David Fincher, the only question left is how viewers (and critics) will choose to watch it.

Turns out, that's a big question.

I've already reviewed the first two episodes of House of Cards and liked it immensely. When I was done with the second episode, I immediately wanted more (not an unfamiliar feeling among critics who like a series and viewers who do the same -- or come to a great series late and then are able to "marathon" view their way through). All that matters at that point is time -- and perhaps a need to sleep or go outside.

TV REVIEW: House of Cards

No doubt some viewers will go to Netflix today and binge view. Maybe they'll get through half and finish on the weekend. Maybe they have insomnia and will finish the entire first season in one night.

I won't be one of those people. I might watch episode three Friday night, then put things off until next week. There's a Super Bowl to watch on Sunday. There are TV series I'm already behind on -- stacking up on my DVR as I write this. And don't even mention the fact I haven't seen a movie in a theater in ages.

And oh, yes, I also have a life.

So, at this point -- and this is precisely the flexibility that Netflix touts -- I may just start watching one a week unless I have the time. As Netflix will point out, it's there when you want it.

I don't have trouble with delaying my gratification because I'm a television critic who firmly believes that this ubiquitous trend of "recapping" every episode does a disservice to most shows. So it's not like I'm going to be writing about every episode, as some others will. I only do that in extremely rare situations where a series (Breaking Bad, Mad Men) is so inarguably brilliant and stuffed with relevant, big-picture visual criticism elements that they deserve a weekly deconstruction. Even then, I have my issues, because it's often like guessing about the ending or quality of a book after each chapter ends -- pointless and disrespectful to how the writer wanted the story experienced.

The issues that are most intriguing go beyond when you'll watch House of Cards and how many episodes you'll mainline. I'm interested and perhaps a little concerned about what will happen on social media. Most people on my feed are TV critics, and they generally keep spoilers in check, but not everybody will. In fact, I joked Friday on Twitter that I had watched all 13 episodes and was pissed off and shocked that they killed off Kevin Spacey.

VIDEO: 'House of Cards' Trailer

Some people thought I wasn't kidding. So I also noted that having Robin Wright get pregnant and then shoot the president was gimmicky and didn't work. Fearing that would enflame more people randomly reading their tweets and not getting the joke, I sent out another one saying I'd watched the Super Bowl on Netflix and that it was a 49ers blowout, with Colin Kaepernick getting the MVP.

It won't be me, but I fear it will be someone else -- ruining my House of Cards experience by talking about future episodes I haven't seen. Maybe their argument will be that there are no "future" episodes and that when all 13 went live, they were fair game for comment.

For a lot of people, one of the elements that will be lost in this Netflix strategy is this very social media component. People love to talk about shows on Twitter -- especially if something big happened (a character dies, etc.). Even with the most closely worded tweet, some of the experience of actually viewing the show will be lost. For example, I get annoyed (as do others) even at the mere suggestion in a tweet that "something big/awesome happens tonight, don't miss it." That's seeing the train coming, isn't it? I don't want to spend time distractedly watching an episode and thinking, "Oh, this must be the part -- here it comes for sure!" That takes me out of how I view and process a show.

So yes, the social media aspects are quite important, as any slip-up could undercut the drama and storytelling.

I'm also not sold that this is the best way for Netflix to take advantage of its content, but that's not my responsibility. And Netflix, for its part, is staunchly in favor of the "whenever you want it" concept. No schedules, no waiting -- view it your way. I get that. It's a fine marketing idea because telling people that they control their choices is always popular. But that will have to be what fuels the interest in others joining Netflix, because the company has lost the ability to promote/hype a show week to week and draw it out. It remains to be seen if House of Cards has the kind of power that would have made selling it each week a PR bonanza in the first place, but there's certainly no doubt that the rabid Arrested Development fans, who will get to see all 14 episodes of that refurbished series, would have been foaming at the mouth waiting for each new episode. You could truly milk some PR and marketing out of that kind of devotion. But nope, Arrested Development will follow the same all-at-once rollout.

At least in that instance, there might be a more interactive element in the new AD episodes that makes perfect sense to have all of them available at once (you'll find my column on that in the coming days).

In the meantime, House of Cards is ready. How are you going to consume it?

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine