Binge-viewing House of Cards season 2: I survived Frank Underwood

Binge-viewers, lock (your doors) and load (up on snacks): At midnight PST Friday, Netflix released the full second season of House of Cards, the award-winning series created by Beau Willimon.

The dark political drama and Valentine’s Day might not seem like the most natural of fits, but because of President’s Day, the choice of release date actually fits with Netflix’s pattern of targeting periods of time when potential viewers might be home.

Of course, who wants to wait for the three-day weekend to start when you can wake up at 1:30 AM and watch all night long? That, I found today (once again), is a lot more interesting.

First things first — watch the first season first

If it’s been a while since you watched the first season of House of Cards, you might want to brush up on the show before diving into the season two premiere, “Chapter 14.”

hoc_ps2_006_hBecause, as the episode title indicates, the action picks up immediately after the events of the first season finale — 13 months might have passed for us viewers, but only minutes have gone by for the duplicitous Underwoods (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright), and right away, all the players dive back into manipulating, backstabbing and eating ribs.

So I found myself very grateful that I’d rewatched the last five episodes of Season 1 earlier this week — recaps exist, but there are a lot of nuances to keep track of, not to mention minor characters from Season 1 who play larger roles than anticipated in Season 2.

The actual binge

For this year’s binge-viewing, I managed a nap in the earlier part of the evening, and woke up at 1:30 AM to begin a ten-hour marathon of the first 11 episodes. (Netflix’s auto-play feature greatly aided my efficiency.) Then, after a break for breakfast, caffeine and fresh air, I finished the final episodes — being careful, per President Obama’s request, not to unveil any real spoilers.

hoc_ps2_007_hHow did the show come together as one long gulp? Surprisingly stronger than last season. The product placement is slightly less blatant, it’s fun to see Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity play themselves, and the new cast members (including Molly Parker, Jimmi Simpson and a guinea pig) are solid additions.

Without revealing any actual plot developments, pacing-wise things were much tighter. While there were a few plot threads that dragged more than others (I was genuinely shocked by how big a deal Frank’s favorite ribs joint was this season — by episode nine, even this quasi-vegetarian was beginning to get a bit of a craving for barbecue), Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Gerald McRainey and Mahershala Ali had expanded roles that helped things feel much more fleshed out and connected.

Visually and tonally, Season 2 is right in line with Season 1, down to the use of on-screen graphics to illustrate the many text messages that help drive the show’s action (reminiscent of a similar technique used on BBC’s Sherlock). That level of consistency is pretty impressive, especially since David Fincher didn’t return for Season 2 — but Fincher did such a strong job establishing the world of the show with his first two episodes that it’s not hard for other directors to mimic him.

Any hiccups?

House of Cards‘s greatest vulnerability is always its flirtation with camp. Whether it be Kevin Spacey’s frustrated eyerolls to the camera or some of the more melodramatic plot twists, there’s always the threat that things will go too far.

hoc_ps2_018_hAnd yet those plot twists and performance choices are what differentiate HOC from other network fare; its strength is not in detailed policy discussion or political debate, but the betrayals and lies that send its characters clashing against each other.

There’s also the show’s odd relationship with sex; in its first season, House of Cards established a tradition of unusual encounters, and the second season expands on that with unexpected same-sex relationships, multiple scenes with multiple partners and a thing with a plastic bag that I don’t care to describe here.

The encounters vary from extremely explicit to the fade-to-black treatment, but every time the limit is pushed, it feels a bit like Netflix is deliberately taunting HBO. (s WB) “Top that, Game of Thrones!” you can almost hear Willimon cackling in the editing room.

It’s not over until Kevin Spacey stops talking to the camera

What’s interesting about Season 2 versus Season 1 is that while watching the first season was something of a novelty experience, Season 2 is a more settled, mature creature. And over the course of these 13 new episodes, it’s easy to see why, exactly, Netflix renewed House of Cards for a third season months ago.

Because the plotlines are better-managed and the characters drift back in and out with more confidence, House of Cards has managed to evolve into something that could become a real, enduring franchise — a dark nymphomaniac twin to The West Wing.

And a real, enduring franchise is absolutely essential to Netflix building on the strong reputation for great shows it created last year. With Season 2, House of Cards proves that it has legs — at least for as long as it can keep its A-level cast and creator happy.