Play All, p.12Clive James
Philosophical conundrums aside, there is the matter of Tyrion’s indispensability: and here, surely, we finally come down to a certainty that there is one character the show can’t do without. We have seen ourselves shocked when Ned Stark gets decapitated, and we will be shocked again when Tywin Lannister is killed by cross-bow bolts when sitting in the privy. But we can survive those shocks, and might even have been able to bear it if the darling daughter Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), after seasons of being protected like a caged nightingale even from the casual rapaciousness of the dreaded Joffrey, had been not only raped but killed, just as, in real life, some daughter equally precious is raped and killed every day of the week. Indeed, to put it as compassionately as I can, the dramatis personae consist largely of characters I wouldn’t have minded seeing the back of. I liked the grim realism of Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), but, he being so realistic, how could he put up for another minute with the tedious scarlet woman Melisandre (Carice van Houten, bravely coping with the portentous dialogue of the numinous), the living, shape-changing embodiment of all I find hopelessly trivial about the occult? (Think how much less interesting Cersei would be if she were a shape-changer. Instead, all her deadliness falls within the range of normality. She is a smile-changer.) I also looked forward for far too long to the disappearance of the batso harridan Lady Lysa Arryn (Kate Dickie) down the same hole in the floor of the High Hall of the Eyrie into which she had precipitated so many of her enemies for a vertical trip of six hundred feet to the rocks below. (Our thanks here for a crucial assist from Lord Baelish.) Instances could be multiplied of those begging to be dispensed with.
Of those we come to love, there are many, but we have been ready to see them go. Young Arya, for example, braves so many fatal hazards with so tiny a sword that it would not have been surprising to see her pinned by her own toothpick like a cocktail sausage. Clearly the main thing keeping her alive was the determination of the show-runners to fascinate us with the process of her maturation, but from our own lives we know that the wish to see someone grow and thrive can be thwarted by chance. Everyone in the show is dispensable, as in the real world. But without Tyrion Lannister you would have to start the show again, because he is the epitome of the story’s moral scope; and anyway he is us, bright enough to see the world’s evil but not strong enough to change it. His big head is the symbol of his comprehension, and his little body the symbol of his incapacity to act upon it. For all his cleverness, there are times when only a quirk in the script can save him. Real life could kill the dwarf, but the show couldn’t. So finally Game of Thrones stands revealed as a crowd pleaser. To despise that, you have to imagine you aren’t part of the crowd. But you are: the lesson that the twentieth century should have taught all intellectuals. Now it is a different century, and they must go on being taught.
THIS BOOK COULD GO ON for twice its length, but I think I have made the points that I was bound to make, and anyway I have not enough health left to do everything, much as I would like to. The concept of the superman is so deeply embedded into popular entertainment that one can easily be made to feel a failure for no longer being able to leap tall buildings with a single bound. But as we have seen with so many of the box sets, less corny concepts are increasingly likely to make their appearance on the little screen, even as the large screen becomes cornier than ever. At the very moment when Milla Jovovich, on the big screen, must carve her way invincibly through yet another busload of automata, the equally striking Julianna Margulies, still playing Alicia Florrick on the small screen, goes on with the much more difficult struggle for justice among human beings. She’s an atheist, so she can’t be president unless she lies; but as a pure soul plunged into the acid bath of the law she can be Princess America at her most complex, thoughtful, tender, and brave. The Good Wife isn’t even a box set drama in the new sense. It’s a television drama in the older sense of a CBS network weekly serial subject to cancellation season by season. It’s still up there on television because the public loves it, and it’s packed into boxes so that we can pay for it all over again. When the Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer lost his position, he calmed himself down by binge-watching more than a hundred episodes of The Good Wife. I know something of how he felt. For nearly all the time I have been working on this book, Lucinda and I have been watching at least four episodes of that very show every Saturday afternoon. It’s a reminder that in calling this recent upsurge of creativity a Golden Age of Television we have merely labeled part of an evolutionary process with an ad hoc descriptive term, an only slightly less than usually misleading specimen of the academic nomenclature that divides up the history of anything into manageable chunks. The Good Wife might have started going to air before there were boxes to fit it in, but it began with subtleties that later developments have not rendered obsolete, a fact underlined by the confidence with which it continues to deploy them.
There is a bad tendency among instant commentators on the media to suppose that all qualities began with the new wrinkle: but most of those qualities wouldn’t have got there without being inherited from the old wrinkle. Luckily there is another brand of commentators, usually older and therefore less caught up in the evanescent glamour of the instant, who can reach back into their memories and point out that this business of continuously good writing throughout the long run of a show really began with The Rockford Files, and that a lot of what you love about Bradley Whitford unsuccessfully browbeating Janel Moloney was already there in the way James Garner talked sardonic rings around the hoodlums. Attractively incarnating a classic Dodge City sheriff redeployed as a U.S. marshal with the freedom to operate of a modern private eye, Timothy Olyphant in the excellent Justified would scarcely have a role to play if Jim Rockford had not first emerged from his trailer like Philip Marlowe with better taste in socks: not even the prodigiously creative Elmore Leonard, who supervised the expansion of Justified from its seed in one of his own short stories, could make up an entire tradition on his own, although sometimes when you watch Get Shorty again you might think he could. My wife, incidentally, loves Timothy Olyphant, but without Justified she might have had to discover him as the semiandroid star of that junk-channel staple movie Hitman, his fine head shining like a shrink-wrapped cantaloupe complete with bar code.
And so it goes on, from generation to generation: innovations remembered and developed, with very little that is entirely new, just as there are very few reactions in science that involve new elements, although occasionally, in the world of moving pictures, there will be one discovery, such as the invention of the close-up—the cinematic equivalent of discovering that plutonium had the right profile for neutron capture—that seems to change the game. But Rembrandt had already invented the close-up, and even he, however illustrious, was only one link in a long chain. In the cinematic story department, especially, the same rule applies that Richard Wilbur said was true for poetry: every revolution is a palace revolution. Nobody can be first: all you can be is the latest. To the credit of the many show-runners whose work is mentioned in this book, they know very well the long line of inheritance that leads up to them. For those of us with a less thorough practical knowledge, the past is nowadays being repackaged into box sets as if specifically to make us wise. Such a care for history is one of the undeniably good things about this marketing development. It serves the producer, but only because it serves the consumer first: capitalism the right way up.
Keeping the encouraging fact in mind that enlightenment is being furthered, we can safely note that Gresham’s Law has not been magically repealed: badness will get in if it can, and any fad can become a threat. The box set concept has become so fashionable that a benchmark movie such as Fargo is refashioned as a series of television stories with the distant but certain intention of putting the stories into a box. The results are very good, but one quails to think of what they will be like when the same thing happens to The Bridges of Madison County. In France, the export success of Spiral w
The obvious intention of the BBC 4 double slot is to create the sensation of binge-watching within a restricted time frame, and it sort of works if you believe that the luxury of a long flight in first class can be reproduced by a short-haul flight from LaGuardia to Cleveland. A few of Braquo’s episodes, by the way, are not entirely devoted to the usual struggle in French policier shows between bent cops we like and Internal Affairs cops we don’t: occasionally the mauvais garçons turn out to be Islamic extremists, or anyway they are Serbians who know where the Islamic extremists are. In that way the most intractable problem faced by the French forces of law at least gets a mention. But on the whole, in the French police shows pour l’exportation, the way to deal with the question of militant Islam has been not to deal with it. Not long after I started watching the box set of Braquo I got the sense that its picture of criminal Paris, for all the horror of the torture scenes and the frantic, choppily edited action as the boys went booming around the banlieues in a BMW, was only pussyfooting toward reality. Then came the night of November 13, 2015, and suddenly the show looked obsolete, as if it was about nothing. But I shall go on watching, because it is so well made, and the subtitles make me feel cosmopolitan in a way that a few lines of Dothraki dialogue don’t quite achieve.
On a world scale, so many new boxes are being generated that it’s getting hard to keep up, but perhaps there is no need to fret. Something outstanding like Catastrophe will get plenty of media coverage: you don’t have to find it by yourself. (Something isn’t unfindable just because it’s on Amazon Prime, although there are people who think that that’s where Jimmy Hoffa is buried.) And anyway, the old boxes—I mean the prebox boxes, the shows that you once had to catch on the air if you were to stay up to speed—are available in sufficient numbers to keep you going until death and beyond. (What are the hard-core TV fans doing in eternity? They’re watching the complete run of Police Story, so as to see how Michael Mann, though he was nominally only a writer on that show, might have begun working out his color scheme for Miami Vice. Then they watch Miami Vice again. Then they watch a dozen boxes of Inspector Montalbano, to find out what the police have been doing in Italy. Then they watch about ten years of Kommissar Rex, to find out what police dogs have been doing in Austria. Then they . . .) As we watch the older shows, I and both my daughters find that we notice more, because the new stuff has racked up our perceptions by a notch at least. In every chapter of The Good Wife, for example, you will find a neat treatment of some difficult theme that the average box set drama stretches out to a length that can easily seem indulgent. In the sixth season, Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry), after he is finally sprung from unjust imprisonment, must further endure dreary questioning from dreary pretrial service supervisor Joy Grubick (played with impeccable dreariness by Linda Lavin), confidently exercising her duty to ask him obvious questions and think a long time about his answers. Alicia also is forced into the slow orbit of Joy Grubick and assumes, like Cary, that the supervisor’s painstakingly written opinion will further the interests of the very bent, very bald state’s attorney James Castro (Michael Cerveris). But when the crunch comes, it turns out that the dreary lady is the embodiment of true justice. This seemingly minor story line demonstrates several of the show’s favorite themes all at once. It demonstrates the theme that our bunch of glamorously quick-thinking lawyers can sometimes miss the point simply through being so clever. It also demonstrates the theme that a face is hard to read: from the way Lavin plays her, you would swear that the supervisor was as pedantically malicious as Robespierre, yet when she comes up trumps you realize that the awkward pauses she induced in her interrogations were not a cruel tactic, they were pauses for thought.
What it doesn’t demonstrate, however, is any clear answer to the viewer’s permanently recurring question of whether Alicia’s firm should be taking money from a drug lord. Though Cary is being framed, the prosecution’s general case that our lawyers are profiting from illegality is true. Objections to the show’s lofty neutrality on this point are probably just objections to the culture of the United States, but it’s a big “just.” Those of us in other countries can get used to the standard Good Wife office layout in which all the walls are glass: the door can shut on the sound of a conversation but not on the sight of the people having it, so everyone else in the office spends half their day wondering who among their colleagues and superiors is saying what to whom and why. This cultural quirk, a society reflected in its architecture, merely induces all the right tensions that are good for drama.
But for the loyally viewing foreigner it’s a lot harder to accept that our favorite lawyer Alicia is being partly financed by the murderous drug lord Lemond Bishop (Mike Colter), although when a black actor plays a black hat it’s presumably even better for community cohesion than if he plays a white hat: it must mean that at last there are enough black white hats, a long way to have come since the comparatively recent days—less long ago than the length of my lifetime—when Sidney Poitier was up there on his own, like Matt Damon on Mars. Besides, the show has plenty of nonwhite actors in sympathetic roles. From the politically correct angle, it’s The Love Boat brought up to speed. Nor can you fault the show’s attitude to gender equality and female fulfillment. As to gender, it has everything from the insatiably ambitious Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) right down to—or up to, if you prefer—the glitteringly gifted new hire Candace Frawley (Tonya Glanz), who clearly could go all the way but prefers to go home and raise a family. As to sexuality, it has Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi), she of the big boots and the little legs, who keeps us, and half the characters whether male or female, erotically fascinated throughout the show: a vamp for all seasons, and it isn’t even her fault. Her eyes were made for us to drown in, and for her to watch us struggle. (The rumor that she might be written out in season 6 induced global apprehension.) For the current generation of young women devoted to the show, watching Kalinda must be like their mothers reading The Female Eunuch, especially since lingering puritanical conventions of American showbiz dictate that even the multivalent Kalinda, along with the rest of the cast, can have sex only by suggestion. If it ever should occur that Peter Florrick (Chris Noth) resumes his wayward ways—at the time of writing the matter has been in doubt for six seasons—we can be certain that the female intern might lose her shirt, but that he will never lose his trousers.
If a Martian anthropologist arrived by flying saucer and set about investigating the sexuality of earthlings through reference to the American cinematic and television archive, he, she, or it would deduce that human copulation was something that takes place mainly in the kitchen, with the male pressing his trousers tightly against a presumably bare-bottomed female splayed on the kitchen counter, right there among the knives, cheese grat
Play All by Clive James / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes