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Binge TV: Try ‘House of Cards’

I avoided House of Cards for more than a year. As a Netflix subscriber, I was skeptical after watching the show’s logo pop up on my TV screen week after tiresome week. Too much hype, I decided. Yes, I could watch all the episodes in one sitting. But why bother?

Netflix’s much-heralded foray into original programming wouldn’t leave me alone, though. With Cards’s second season making its debut on Valentine’s Day, the coverage and reviews ramped up again. One night, while looking for a way to pass 45 minutes on my exercise bike, I took the plunge. After the show’s first scene, in which a glowering Spacey strangles an offscreen dog, I was intrigued. By the end of the show’s first episode, in which Spacey’s Rep. Frank Underwood vows revenge against the president and forges an alliance with a cub reporter, I was hooked.

I watched the entire first season over a weekend. After a few days of working (you’ve heard of it, I’m sure), I watched the entire second season, also over a weekend. Now I’m out of episodes until February 2015, when the third season appears.

The show can’t be accused of being good, not exactly. It operates at a level where wonky D.C. procedural – think The West Wing without any scruples – overlaps with scenery chewing viciousness and improbable plotting. But there are amazing things within that mixture, among them Spacey’s cornpone take on Richard III. He’s paired with the radiant Robin Wright, who plays his not-quite-like-Hillary wife.

Despite its dark, sometimes criminal tone, the show has become popular among politicians and D.C. journalists. Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, and The New York Times Magazine’s Matt Bai all appear in the second season. And I understand why they like the show, because it’s largely why I like the show.

House of Cards makes Washington and journalism look important. It makes politics and writing look as though they matter.

These days, that’s no small thing. Consider the (real) House of Representatives voting dozens of times to repeal or gut the Affordable Care Act. Serious time was spent on the implausible goal of vanquishing a sitting president’s signature legislative accomplishment. In House of Cards, the (fake) Congress seems to spend a couple of hours passing a landmark education reform bill. A short time later, it manages to preserve Social Security by raising the retirement age. Politicians can only dream of results like that.

In the (real) news media, journalists and editors work to do more with less, all the while writing shorter pieces and trying to drive web traffic. In House of Cards, journalists spend weeks and months chasing after stories that lead nowhere. Don’t get me started on the fictional Washington Herald newspaper; it has a break room more opulent than any I’ve seen at an actual media enterprise (and I’ve worked at six).

It’s difficult for me to recommend the show to someone who isn’t familiar with politics or journalism. The show depicts neither with the slightest smidgen of accuracy, but that’s the point. As each episode began, I nearly giggled contemplating the ridiculousness to come. Would someone else with different interests or life experiences have the same reaction?

Whatever the case, House of Cards lends itself brilliantly to binge viewing. The season-long story arcs pay off almost immediately. The boring parts pass by quicker. And you don’t have the time to think too hard about the latest perplexing plot twist. (A menage a trois with a Secret Service agent? Really?)

Next February can’t come soon enough.

(Clay Wirestone can be reached at cwirestone@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ClayWires.)

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