Play All, p.13Clive James
But a good labyrinth is made from Ariadne’s thread. It leads everywhere, and The Good Wife leads you not only back a bit into the network world that was there before cable, but forward into the galaxy of outlets that come next. Soon there will be no more box sets or even any DVDs, but the onrush of product will not be checked: on the contrary, it will be upgraded to a tumult that pours directly into the computer before your eyes, pending the day when the computer itself becomes an implant in your head. As Borges foresaw in his clairvoyant blindness, every library is a cyclotron. In the library of moving pictures, the continuity of the labyrinth is provided by the limitless mutability of themes and the limited supply of actors. There is a limited supply also of writers and producers, but that constraint doesn’t show until things run thin. You don’t have to travel through the cosmos of heavy viewing for very long, however, before you notice the same faces turning up. In Scandinavian TV they turn up straight away because in Scandinavia, wherever that is, there are only about ten actors, so fairly soon you will see a serial killer in one box set reborn as a detective in another. In Germany, Bruno Ganz is your only man to play the wise old chief of the antiterror squad. His face, weary with hard-won knowledge, confers automatic historic weight. But that’s also what he’s doing in Downfall: he’s giving Hitler an upside. Ganz is everywhere because there’s nobody else in his class. In the USA there are more actors than there are ordinary people in some small nations, but even in the vast population of American actors there are only a certain small percentage with the talent and the appearance to hold the screen. Below the salary level of big-screen stardom—the actors who are billed above the title—there is a general range of big-screen actors who are in constant demand because of the qualities they confer simply by appearing. As Anthony Lane has pointed out, anything is better if it has Stanley Tucci in it. Tucci does thoughtful decency. He also does thoughtful evil: moving into the area of box sets of old TV shows, you find him being villainous in Murder One, a show with an ancestral relationship to The Good Wife. The same relationship could be posited for LA Law, and, indeed, for Perry Mason: the connections of inheritance are endless. But there are only so many good actors to go around, so it is really no surprise that if you binge-watch the big boxes for long enough you will get familiar with what seems like a repertory company. Say goodbye to Dominic Chianese as Uncle Junior in The Sopranos and you may say hello to him as he appears behind the judge’s bench in five episodes of The Good Wife. Watch the boxes long enough and you start wondering whether there will be a show based on the NFL in which Stockard Channing plays a linebacker for the Chicago Bears.
The show-runners try to cast for unfamiliarity, especially at the start of a new show: when The Wire got started, nobody had heard of Dominic West or Idris Elba, because they had received their thespian training in some faraway foreign land across the Narrow Sea. But inevitably, as time rolls on and you keep piling up the boxes, actors who belong in one box migrate into another. Sometimes you wish, on their behalf, that they could migrate back again. If Claire Danes in Homeland drives you crazier than her character, take a look at her in the TV show that launched her career, My So-Called Life; she was terrific, and you might be sorry that the show was canceled after nineteen episodes. But it’s doubtful that she stayed sorry for long, because the cancelation left her free to be cast in Baz Luhrmann’s film of Romeo and Juliet, in which she is a lyric poem all by herself.
Actors have to go with the market, which can be cruel. It is at its most cruel when it ignores you completely, but it can also be cruel when it doesn’t. This book had its real beginnings in a winter when Lucinda and I sat down to watch NYPD Blue right through from the top for the second time in both our lives. More certainly than ever, Dennis Franz’s performance as Andy Sipowicz emerged as something monumental. The handsome guys in the show came and went: David Caruso, after finding out from the flame-out of Jade that a movie career was not for him, recovered his stellar luster in CSI Miami, where he parlayed, into international recognizability, the art of standing sideways and putting on and taking off his dark glasses. Jimmy Smits arrived on his way to The West Wing. But for the twelve solid years that show-runner Steven Bochco’s most startling creation was running, it was the balding overweight guy, Sipowicz, who was the living symbol of the show, a reformed alcoholic sweating in his short-sleeved shirt on a summer’s day, suffering for his wayward son, breathless from unbelieving apprehension when he got the ideal woman. (ADA Sylvia Costas, as played by Sharon Lawrence, is a plausible candidate for an earlier incarnation of Alicia Florrick.) Dennis Franz’s Sipowicz was a foundation performance in the Hall of Fame of modern American television. Yet afterward, when you saw Dennis Franz again, he was the airport cop yelling bad lines at Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2.
And that’s the story of a successful actor. Sitting safely at home, we scarcely realize that these people are on parade in a slave market. We think of them as our property, and in a way they are; because the territory they inhabit has become incorporated into our mental landscape. Moving pictures are one of the main ways that the world is transmitted to us. We need to remember, though, that the very best they can do is not to tell us outright lies about that reality. For the subtleties, we still need books. While writing this book I was still reading half the day before I watched at night, and without what I read I would soon have lost touch with the nuances that matter. Only a third of the way into Rohinton Mistry’s novel A Fine Balance, it became chasteningly clear to me why the screens could never tell me enough. The book is about poverty, and you might get something about a brave mother and her clever son from a movie or a TV show, but not even the memories of your own life can give you what the book does, because this is poverty of a different order. Reading about the sanitary arrangements in the Bombay slums, you quickly see why even the most realistic set dressing in Game of Thrones is essentially cosmetic. The imprisoned Tyrion may graphically complain about having been left to sit in his own shit, but you won’t see it happen. How could you? It’s only a TV show, and the TV shows, like the movies, are still camped in the dreamland that Elmer Rice made up for his 1930 novel A Voyage to Puerilia after he noticed that nobody on screen ever had to bother about the elimination of body waste.
A screen creation can’t possibly give you the whole texture of the real: it can only strive to ensure that the picture it projects lends as little support as possible to the unreal. It is a dream that tries to hold back dreamland. Luckily the people in charge of Game of Thrones and the other big box sets have liberal values; and a national industry devoted to propagating illiberal values is quite hard to imagine, although Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union both had time to try before they died of their own beliefs, and in Egypt until quite recently the government-controlled television network was still screening a serialized drama based on that obscene old anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Western intellectuals are quite fond of the idea that our systems of entertainment impose a repressive ideology, but really they impose nothing except a bewildering complexity. A Western intellectual stupid enough to envy the ideological simplicity of life in a culture whose ethics are controlled by theocrats ought to be locked up for as long as it takes him to laugh at an Egyptian television comedy series. For professional reasons I once had to sit through several episodes of one of these, and I thought at the time that if this was the product of the supposedly most liberal of the Arab nations, then one day we would be at war on a world scale. Eliot once spoke of the laceration of laughter at what ceases to amuse. He never had to experience the laceration of not laughing at what never begins to amuse; and we should take steps to ensure, by protecting our freedoms of expression, that our future generations never have to experience that either.
The long-form TV drama is the product of a free country. But the free country doesn’t have to be America. Any free country can do its own equivalent of American cultural imperialism as long as it is willing to put creative investment into the part of the enterpri
Working your way through all the boxes of NYPD Blue—a perfectly delightful occupation—you can watch the single-episode procedural story morphing into the overarching serial story of the complete season, and the seasons themselves becoming chapters in the total narrative arc: a developmental process which we can now, in retrospect, clearly see as the preparation for the box set drama. But prescience might have told us the same thing when we were watching Shogun back there in 1980. A maxi mini-series set in old Japan, it still looks new enough to make you wonder whether James Clavell, whose inspiration it was—he not only wrote the novel, he ran the whole gigantic production—might not have been the true founding father of the creative era that we have been considering in this book. Shogun not only has the fully working swords of Game of Thrones, it has the same violent terrors of a lawless society, except that they are exquisitely decorated with the kimonos and shy smile of Yôko Shimada. Even further back in television history, the show’s leading man, Richard Chamberlain, put in five years playing Dr. Kildare, but as the English navigator working his way to power in an ambience bristling with bare blades, he looks forward to Ned Stark doing the same in Westeros. And the all-wise Shogun himself, as played by the great Toshirô Mifune, is the very prototype of the long line of wise men that culminates in Tywin Lannister. The Japanese have a special name for the wise man: he is the genrô, the principal elder. We may grieve that Charles Dance pronounced Tywin’s last words, but we can be certain that we will see the principal elder yet again, under another actor’s name; unless the tradition of the all-knowing sage was finally made untenable by Yoda in the Star Wars movies, backward his lines speaking in common sense defiance of.
I’ve only just remembered that Edward James Olmos, playing Admiral William Adama, commander of the endlessly fleeing space fleet in Battlestar Galactica, is a principal elder too. And I suppose Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) of Star Trek: The Next Generation is another; and Captain James Kirk of the original Star Trek also was, back in the innocent days of William Shatner’s first hairpiece. (The Shatner hairpiece never really achieved warp speed until he starred in T. J. Hooker.) If SF were an inherently bad genre, like action comedy, I would have ignored it; but all too often it was full of ideas and invention, so I never could. I was already hooked years before I saw every episode of The Invaders. I was hooked in childhood by the movie serial Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, starring Buster Crabbe as Flash and Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless of Mongo. If I started remembering all the SF shows, however, I would end up making notes for a whole new book in which to discuss why big budgets and CGI effects have actually helped to diminish the genre, which is always at its most thought-provoking when the interstellar enemy looks exactly like us: the aliens in the Alien movies merely scare you, but the Cylons make you start counting your children. And if one of the aims of the average SF show was to attract an audience dumb enough to dress up as the characters, well, remember that one of the results was Galaxy Quest, a media-wise creation in the same league with This Is Spinal Tap and Team America. Alas, there is no room left to remember everything, and my own time as a wise man, if I ever was one, is nearly done.
Wise men everywhere, all over the galaxy, and far into the future! Will the wise women ever get their chance? But of course they will, and be wiser than us. As my image-soaked brain prepares for shutdown, of that much it can be certain: the television output of the Western nations might not be able to ensure, all on its own, that justice for women is secured, but it has already ensured that justice for women is encouraged and exemplified. The government of a free country could no longer get away with force-feeding suffragettes even if it wished to; public opinion, which is at least partly formed by television, wouldn’t allow it; and anyway, free women have the vote. Protected against the worst of what men could do to them, women are at liberty to discuss what is done to them by nature. The TV shows are helping with that discussion all the time. When Alicia chooses to stay at work while Candace chooses to go home and have babies, that’s a discussion; and when Hannah Horvath, preparing for the evening’s battle against the sex goddesses, defiantly addresses the bathroom mirror (“The worst things you say are better than the best things they say”), that’s a discussion squared, all taking place within the mind of one brilliant young woman. I never expected to see women get so far in my time. On screen, they are increasingly in good hands: their own. Lucille Ball started all that by making sure that she owned the sell-on rights to I Love Lucy; but it’s still been a long slog, and Meryl Streep is only one of the many bright show business women who very properly remind us that it isn’t over yet. But women, on screen at least, are a long way toward achieving a fair shake; and to the extent that they have not achieved it, they more and more have the chance of getting paid to say why. I just hope they find time to remember that some men were their friends: and that out there over the horizon, in the world that isn’t free, there are still millions of men who sincerely think that the proper destiny of women who want to talk about these matters is to be burned alive or stoned to death, and preferably both at once.
But I wouldn’t want to scare my ten-year-old granddaughter by telling her that. I’m busy enough telling her that there are some scenes in Friends that are too old for her. She has a box set of all ten seasons, and I am allowed to watch along with her as she ploughs through the whole thing yet again. She doesn’t seem even slightly fazed by the mentions of sex. I could wish that she were more bothered by the laugh track, which is, in my professional experience, a bad
Clive James, Play All
Play All by Clive James / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes