The rise of TV binge-watching, and the death of the spoiler alert

Netflix has put all of its new House of Cards series online in one go. It's like a boxset without a boxset - but will it ruin the social aspect of telly viewing?

In the last week or so, my Twitter timeline (a self-selected crowd of pop culture enthusiasts such as myself) went a little bit nuts. The reason? An American remake of House of Cards, the wildly influential 1990 TV series starring Ian Richardson as fictional Tory Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (“You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment”) had finally been released.

These days, the main man’s been relocated to Washington DC where he is called Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), and is a Democratic congressman playing the long and not entirely diplomatic game after a betrayal. I’ve only seen the trailer, but everyone seems more or less blown away by it so far – one enthusiastic viewer compared it to State of Play, which is for my money, one of the best television series of all time, so there’s pressure. But critical success or not, the really interesting thing about House of Cards (2013) is the mode of its release. All thirteen episodes of Season 1 have been released at the same time, so you, the viewer, gets to dictate the pace of your consumption. We have finally achieved something I did not think I would see in my lifetime: The Boxset Dream Without The Boxset.  

The series was commissioned by Netflix – not usually found in the business of acquiring original programming (that’s the preserve of HBO etc), but streaming it. The true joy of House of Cards lies not in the pedigree of the crew and cast – Spacey’s co-star is Princess Buttercup herself, Robin Wright – which is of course, desirable and welcome. No, it is its instant availability, crucially at the same time as it is being aired in America that makes this drama super-glossy and revolutionary. Fans of popular culture are almost always acolytes of the School of Instant Gratification, and those of us based in these British Isles having become used to occupying the position  of the ugly stepchild: almost always several months (sometimes years) behind on the best (and in the interests of fairness, worst – hello, FlashForward) of American television-programming, if we receive it at all. Cast off your entertaino-shackles, brethren – no more! It’s a genuinely exciting prospect.

One of the good things about being constantly late to the party was the option of binge-watching.  As director and executive producer David Fincher has it: “The captive audience is gone. If you give people this opportunity to mainline all in one day, there's reason to believe they will do it."He’s right. We’ve all done it – it’s how I watched superior American television like Deadwood, The Wire, Party Down and Friday Night Lights among others – and we know it to be good. In fact, there is no joy quite like that which is to be found at 1.30am, as you bargain with yourself about how many more episodes you can watch and still be productive in the morning.

With new innovations like Netflix’s latest move will come new questions about how to frame spoiler alerts. A few people have already issued gentle warnings: “I’m giving you two weeks,” tweeted one. “Then it’s spoiler city on House of Cards.” Others have promised dedicated hashtags or just suggested followers mute them for a good long while.

Those of us who live a solid chink of our lives on the internet know the Spoiler Avoidance dance well. Only last week, my Tumblr dashboard turned against me when it began throwing up gifs of a much longed-for event on an American sitcom. That kiss (I will give no more information for fear of incurring viewer-wrath of my own) came up at least ten times in gif and YouTube clip form in less than an hour. In the parlance of the medium, “Tumblr no curr” if your geographical location means you have to wait months for the networks in your country to pick up the second season of a wildly successful show before you can see a seminal lip lock. Tumblr will post those gifs until the cows come home – and sure, you can filter out specific tags to avoid the worst of the spoiling, but there are always breaches. Sometimes, I’ve been using a particularly entertaining gif as a catch-all response on my dashboard only to find the context of its origins watch a show months later.

Death, taxes and spoilers – the new trio of life’s terrible guarantees.

So I’ll be signing up to Netflix, simply because I want to watch this new series. And I will probably watch all thirteen episodes in two long binges over one weekend. It’s not the same as getting Parks and Rec, Scandal and Community at the same time as fans in the States, but for now, it’ll do.

Kevin Spacey in House of Cards.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump