February 11, 2013

As last week’s blizzard bore down on the northeast—and by the way, have you ever noticed how storms are always bearing down on places in news ledes?—New York City hunkered down, Broadway auctioned off tickets in a firesale, and Weather.com turned into Kent Brockman. In the city’s media landscape, fear reigned. But somewhere in the shadowy land of Los Gatos, California, the overlords of Netflix were smiling. For them, everything was going to plan.

The snow came in fits over the weekend, sticking sometimes and melting others. Though it didn’t pile up enough to shut the city down, there was enough hype about it for most of New York’s social set to cancel their weekend plans. The storm was just a storm, not a blizzard, but we were all happy to pretend the snowpocalypse had come to pass.

Although they live in the city’s most happening Metropolis, New Yorkers love an excuse to stay inside. Over the weekend, Twitter was flooded with chatter about what comfort food we were scarfing, what hooch we were swilling, and what TV we were cramming into our brains. Some gorged on West Wing, some traipsed around The Twilight Zone, and some took a fearful first step into the wasteland that is Ally McBeal. (My favorite tweet of the weekend would have been really funny in 1998.) But we were all watching Netflix.

As far as the media ubiquity’s corporate strategy goes, this storm couldn’t have come at a better time. A few weeks ago, Netflix’s million-dollar gamble, House of Cards, was released upon the world. A massively expensive, HBO-style drama, it’s a Beltway story bolstered by the credibility of Kevin Spacey and David Fincher. Digital original programming has never caught on in a massive way—has anyone ever sat down and watched any of Hulu’s original programming?—but Netflix was counting on the fact that, in the last few years, everyone in America seems to have fallen in love with sitting on their ass watching streaming TV.

House of Cards is serious TV, and the drawback of serious programming is that it feels like a commitment. Buzz for the show was just starting to pick up when the hurricane bore down—there it goes again!—and the buzz got tossed into a pressure cooker. The more people tweeted about it, the more their friends felt left out. Suddenly, all we wanted was something to sink our teeth into. We didn’t want Ally McBad—we wanted thirteen hours of Kevin Spacey mugging at the camera and snarling with a preposterous southern accent.

If you’re one of those who stuck to The West Wing as the snow fell—or, god help us, if you’re one of the ones who went outside—know that House of Cards is as good as everyone is saying. It’s drama so cold that you won’t even notice it’s freezing outside, and it’s a hell of a lot more satisfying than making your third or fourth trip through The West Wing.

The current preoccupation with on-demand viewing means that binge watching has eroded the communal spirit that a massively popular television show once engendered. Although tailor made for binge watching, this weekend House of Cards combined with a snowstorm to make sure that, for one last moment, we were all watching the same thing.

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