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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism