Play All, p.1Clive James
A BINGEWATCHER’S NOTEBOOK
Copyright © 2016 by Clive James.
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10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
To Prue, Lucinda, and Claerwen
WATCHERS OF THE AVALANCHE
And to Farran Nehme, Alice Gregory, and Meghan O’Rourke
KIDS FROM BROOKLYN
And to Marina Hyde, Hadley Freeman, Catherine Shoard, and Zoe Williams
SHAKERS OF THE SUPERFLUX
And to Simon Schama and Jonathan Meades
KINGS OF THE WALKING TALK
And to James Gandolfini and Philip French
GHOSTS AT THE FEAST
And to Jonny Grove, Maia Grove, and Benjamin Beresford
And to Steven Bochco, Carl Reiner, Richard Benjamin, and Peter Bogdanovich
Und doch darf ich nicht klagen. Es tut so wohl noch einmal Ja zu sagen.
And yet I mustn’t complain. It’s so good to say “Yes” for once.
A Note on the Text
The Ducks Have Left the Pond
Sorkin on the Racing Line
Sweet Faces Speak Poetry
City of the Dead
Breaking Understandably Bad
The Way We Weren’t
Displays of Secrecy
Game of Depths
FOR CRITICAL ADVICE on my text, I should thank Claerwen James, Lucinda James, Deirdre Serjeantson, and David Free. The opinions are still my own, but some of them have become less intransigent through having been hauled over the coals.
A Note on the Text
APART FROM A FEW PARAGRAPHS of a piece about Mad Men which first appeared in the Weekend Australian Review in 2009, and perhaps a few opinions from a piece about The Pacific that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in 2010, everything in this book was written in these recent years of my illness, while it went on happily refraining from being fatal. With memories in my head of how Twin Peaks had once held my attention with its long story even though I could barely understand its briefest episode, I sat down with my younger daughter Lucinda to watch a big box of NYPD Blue right through. We had seen it all before, but as in a glass, darkly. Our recurring discussion of the magnificence of Andy Sipowicz set a tone that struck me with its potential for one day becoming a useful critical style. This tone was abetted by reports of water-cooler conversations that Lucinda brought home from her work as a civil servant, and from dinner table conversations in my elder daughter Claerwen’s kitchen, where I found myself matching her admiration for Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica with mine for Wilma Deering in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. It occurred to me, perhaps because of my medicated state, that a new critical language was developing itself to deal with the onrush of creativity coming to us in the form of box sets: a system of distribution that still strikes me as something new, even though it is already being overtaken by systems that download material directly into the computer. By the time this book is published, the DVD might be as obsolete as the dodo. But the number of shows, if not their quality, can only go on increasing: and the way we talk about them can only become more compulsively attentive than it was a few years back, when I first noticed that Allison Janney in The West Wing was getting the kind of detailed analytical praise that Maria Callas used to get when she sang in Tosca at Covent Garden. I could hear the same fluent critical inventiveness from the discussion groups of writers on Slate when they talked about the first few episodes of Orange Is the New Black: some of the writers sounded as if they were having at least as much fun talking as they did writing.
Since I have always thought that the spontaneous response of the delighted consumer outranks the more ponderous consideration of the professional student of culture, I took this to be a welcome development, and tried to hang on to the sense of irresponsibility when I sat down to write. Though my tone is conversational, however, I have tried as always to stick to the fixed grammatical rules on which free expression depends, and I would have written “boxed sets” for “box sets” if the neologism had not already become standard. Back in the eighteenth century, I might have agreed with Swift that the word “idololatry” was etymologically correct and that “idolatry” was a barbarism to be staved off at all costs. We would have lost, however: and today there is a good reason for at least acknowledging popular usage when talking about popular culture. Not to do so sounds too aloof. Sometimes the subject is grim, but we wouldn’t even be discussing it if its presentation were not entertaining. When Deirdre Serjeantson gave me a box set of Veronica Mars for Christmas, I wondered briefly what Theodor Adorno would have said on the subject of American schoolgirl detectives, but after watching a few episodes I realized that I didn’t give a damn what Theodor Adorno would have said: I only wanted to see more of what Kristen Bell was doing with the title role. Throughout the text, I have taken care to name the actors, who should always, I think, be given at least that much reward for their work. All too often we think of them as having chosen their roles. They hardly ever get that chance. In that regard we viewers live in a dream world, being guided toward reason by people who live in a world of harsh reality.
IT SEEMS AN AGE AGO NOW, and it was. Between 1972 and 1982 I wrote a regular weekly column about television for the London Observer, and by the end of my stint I preened myself as being fairly clued up on the subject. I signed off with a confident prediction that although the American production centers, having fed their shows to the networks, might go on picking up secondary earnings by flooding the world with stuff priced low because it had already made a profit in the home market, the droll sarcasm of the desk sergeant Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) in Hill Street Blues would be about as clever as their effort would ever get. Seriousness, sophistication, and the thrill of creativity could be supplied only by the older, wiser, more mature nations. For a couple of decades it looked as if I might be right, and then the American cable channels, arising out of nowhere, suddenly outflanked the networks, which, in their turn, were obliged to raise their game. American shows for export increased their status from merely ubiquitous to unbeatably attractive, and then the advent of the box set dramas changed the game completely, to the extent that the old world had to start competing or be left out.
But to compete was hard: the American product was so good. This unexpected upsurge was a replay, in the form of art, of what the Americans had done in World War II, for which, at the beginning, they had very little military equipment, and by
As I begin composing this short treatise about binge-watching and the general cultural importance of the box set TV show, I have just watched, for the third time, the episode of The Good Wife in which Will (spoiler alert!) solves the ethical problems arising from his love affair with Alicia by getting himself shot. I forbear from specifying whether his wound is fatal. I merely say that he ends up feeling even more wiped out than I do. Since my polite but insidious form of leukemia was diagnosed in early 2010, it has been more often dormant than not. Early on, a programme of chemo sent it into remission for nobody knew how long; perhaps months, perhaps more. The mystery span of time turned out to be a full five years, during which the doctors worked with some success on subsidiary problems in my chest and my immune system, and I was able to function professionally almost as well as President Bartlet in The West Wing, whose undeclared disease did not inhibit him in his capacity to bomb the Middle East, outfox Chinese diplomats, or deal with the frightening facial mobility of Stockard Channing in a fit of anger. But not long ago my main event came back, to be faced by a medical opponent that might not have existed had it been smart enough to come back earlier. Now it is being held in check by a powerful new chemo drug called Ibrutinib. The drug’s muscular name (“I, Brutinib. You, Olanzapine”) sounds like the hero of one of those post-Conan movies starring some stack of sculpted tofu who will never be Arnold Schwarzenegger. But you won’t find me disrespecting the package when the contents have such an impact. Saved from the unnerving blood-count plunge which set in when my lurking ailment came out of remission, I’m back to having time to burn. Though I haven’t really got a chance, I haven’t got an end date either. I’m not off the hook, but the hook is holding me upright; and it doesn’t even hurt, which makes me a lot luckier than some of the people I see at the hospital.
In the five years before the latest crisis, I used up a lot of my blessed supply of extra time by reading. When Yale kindly asked me to write a little book about what I had been reading lately, I could barely fit what I had to say into the space allowed. There were always more books getting into my house, and readers of Latest Readings might easily have got the idea that reading books was all that I was doing with my enforced leisure. But I was also viewing, and I mean viewing everything. You might ask how a man who spent his days with the major poems of Browning could wish to spend his evenings with the minor movies of Chow Yun-fat, but I could only reply that it was a duplex need buried deep in my neural network. Even in my weakness, my age-old, oil-burning TV and DVD habit (which had once been a VHS habit, but the dealers re-upped with some great new stuff) had not grown less. But the advent of the critically credentialed TV epic, niftily slotted into a folding sleeve, amplified a long-term addiction into a form of brain-scrambling suicide, because I wasn’t just watching the new and often wonderful box sets, I was also continuing to watch, on the sludge channels, multiple rescreenings of the kind of old and not at all wonderful James Bond movie in which Roger Moore wears a flared safari suit and emits quips in close-up that achieve the difficult feat of making you remember Sean Connery’s similar epigrams as rivaling the table talk of Oscar Wilde. For honesty’s sake, if I was going to give an account of how I dealt with the new, high-end product, I would have to place my response in the context of the established brain patterns of someone who still felt compelled to switch on yet another screening of Salt and wait to see whether Angelina, when jumping from truck to truck through a blizzard of gunfire, might this time miss her mobile aiming-point and smack the speeding concrete highway with her improbably lush lips.
Once again I had more to say, going in, than the book could possibly hold. What to call it? Latest Viewings sounded too self-referential. My younger daughter Lucinda, whose key role in this enterprise will emerge in the telling, wanted me to call it Band of Thrones, thereby conflating the titles of the two box sets that could be thought of as bookends for our total viewing experience stretched over several years. Yes, we were in it together, initially in fair moderation with The Sopranos and The West Wing, and then, when the true, raging binge passion had set in, from our second viewing of Band of Brothers all the way through to the fifth season of Game of Thrones. We jumped together on the night before D-Day and we defended the Wall together against armies of tediously repellent CGI White Walker zombies. Indeed we had been in it together—the entire family had—since The Sopranos and The West Wing had introduced us all to the dizzy new pleasure of watching more than one episode of the same show in a single evening.
But surely three episodes was the maximum possible. Serious people had to retire for the night. It was Lucinda and I who pushed it all the way to four and even five; and now, every Saturday in the tiny parlor of my house of books, we binge-watch at that heady rate. Together, we may well be the only people in the world who have ever watched five episodes of The Following in succession without succumbing to catatonia. Would Kevin Bacon ever meet a character who was not a serial killer? That question kept us awake instead of putting us to sleep. How you can do that much watching without using up the universe is a question we will get to later. For now, enough to say that From the Bada Bing to King’s Landing seemed like a possible title: a bit entre nous, perhaps, a bit dans, but it could be supplemented by an academically respectable subtitle: A Study in the Imperialistic Accumulation of Mythical Milieux. After all, this is a serious cultural subject.
Well no, perhaps it isn’t, but it’s still vital: the new mythology gets into everything, and the first thing it gets into is the old mythology. At my writing desk, after a lifetime of failing to engage with Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, I at last engaged with it, and it struck me that the fair Duessa, the shape-changing femme fatale who causes so much trouble for the Red Cross Knight, has affinities with Melisandre, the scarlet woman in Game of Thrones who causes so much trouble for Stannis Baratheon among others. But when you think about it, this is a strange thought to be struck with. It’s as if classic literature had faded into the mind’s background, and images encountered on the screen had become one’s first frame of cultural reference. In view of this possibility, it becomes a positive likelihood that for the next generation they will be the only frame of reference. It’s a new, pervasive, and irresistible vocabulary of the imagination. Familiar with it, one gets caught up in conversations in which properties of screen stories have the common currency once held by stories from the page. In Renaissance times the bright young people knew what they were talking about when they made glancing references to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Now the bright young people, although they are perhaps already turning into the bright early-middle-aged people, know what they are talking about when they say that two of their friends are like Josh Lyman and Donna Moss, or that another friend is a Zoe Barnes in the making, and could end up getting pushed under a train.
Even in the relative isolation imposed on me by my bad health, I have been unable to help noticing that any water-cooler conversation about the screen stories tends to be at least as learned, allusive, and interesting as any critical analysis on the page. And as the television age has developed all over the world, so this critical language has increased its scope, providing a far more successful lingua franca than was ever the case with Esperanto. Only about a million of the earth’s human inhabitants at any given time can read a page of anything in Esperanto. Yet we learn from the novels of Ahdaf Soueif that just before Egypt went to war with Israel in 1973, the smart set in Cairo were
Not to mention his teeth: as the marvelous Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić tells us in her book Café Europa, Western teeth on their own would have been enough to bring down the Wall. Western TV never needed to spell a message out: it was all message, and still is. (When those irascible imams and mullahs said we just want your TV sets, we don’t want your programmes, they meant we don’t want any of your programmes, because there are none of them that might not feature a woman driving a car unpunished, or having her hand shaken by a man.) By now, the language in which we discuss Western TV penetrates the image all the way to the wallpaper. This book, I can already tell, will be written in just such an allusive language. I don’t mean that serious students of this new Golden Age of Television (I place the capital letters to flag my suspicion that our acceptance of the term might need to be questioned once the euphoria dies down) are wasting their time. Indeed they have made vital contributions already. Brett Martin’s book Difficult Men, which gives us the background to the big shows and the big show-runners (a handy term for the person in charge, especially when she is a woman), is a good shot at outlining the historical framework of the box set movement, even if, with its emphasis on the cable output, it pays too little attention to Aaron Sorkin’s network breakthrough with The West Wing. And out there in Australia, my compatriot James McNamara, by so ably analyzing the wave of American achievement in his long article “The Golden Age of Television?” has already made a global contribution to cultural analysis. All he needs to do now is to reframe the article as a book, adding a couple of chapters to show why the Australian shows Underbelly (a scare fest about criminals) and Rake (a laugh riot about lawyers) ought to be in the canon. The reason is simple: they’re gripping, and that always has to be the first consideration. Without that, complication and sophistication count for nothing, or else you’d actually be enjoying the later novels of Henry James.
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