Clive James, Play All: A bingewatcher’s notebook (2016)
‘Television, the drug of a nation, breeding ignorance and feeding radiation.’ If the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy were right, then boxed sets and streaming services are drugs on a drip. If you spend too much time on that drip, then you won’t add very much to your burden of guilt by reading this short book by Clive James, a hyper-articulate addict whose habit only intensified a couple of years ago when he believed death was imminent.
James is intelligent, extremely well-read and screen-literate, witty and opinionated, qualities that shine forth in this book about long-form television series.
Formal scholarly writing about these television series needs to be done, he writes, but
it will be done best if contact is not lost with the tone of common speech in which habitual consumers discuss the product; a tone not all that far from the voluble congeniality with which they pass the popcorn.
So his notes on these shows – The Sopranos, The West Wing, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Band of Brothers, The Wire, House of Cards (he prefers the US version), Homeland (he doesn’t mention the Israeli original) and more – include the names of the daughters (and sometimes wife) with whom he watched them and the days of the week on which they had their binges. They also have something of the feel of conversations that people might have during a binge and in the following days.
When he tells us he found Treme boring because it lacked a villain, he adds that his daughter had a different response and kept nudging him awake. And perhaps the moments of climate change denial are best understood misjudged fatherly provocations.
The spirit of popcorn is never far away as Clive the Entertainer gives us clever phrase-making, snarky putdowns, flashy displays of erudition, and fanboy talk about recurring actors. His lascivious comments on women’s appearance are probably intended to be a kind of clowning – Clive as the helpless puppet on Hollywood’s seductive strings.
It’s probably a matter of taste, but I prefer Clive the Critic – at least I do when he’s not just delivering one-line dismissals of films I quite like. This Clive has interesting things to say about, for example, The Good Wife or the career of Dennis Franz (Andy Sipowicz in NYPD Blue). He is at his best in two chapters, ‘Game of Depths’ on Game of Thrones and ‘The Way We Weren’t’ on Mad Men. He doesn’t make me want to watch either show, bingeing or otherwise, but he develops interesting theses. He argues that the only indispensable character in Game of Thrones is the dwarf Tyrion played by Peter Dinklage:
Tyrion is the embodiment, in a small body, of the show’s prepolitical psychological range. A perpetual victim of injustice, he has a sense of justice: circumstances can’t destroy his inner certainty that there are such things as fairness, love and truth. Those circumstances might lead him to despair, but he takes their measure by his instincts. This to raise, for an uninstructed audience, the question of what comes first, a civilised society or an instinctive wish for civilisation, can’t be a bad effect for an entertainment to have; although we might have to be part of an instructed audience ourselves in order to find that effect good, and we had better be protected by police and an army from anyone who finds it trivial.
I don’t know what an (un)instructed audience is, but this is a respectful and respectable argument for taking the show seriously.
Mad Men seems to have struck a nerve. In it, he writes,
the corporate world never questions its right to manipulate a captive audience. The truth of the matter was very different. … [The real advertising men of those times] were much more conscious of what they were involved in than the show makes them out to have been. They would have talked about it among themselves. … There would have been disputes, and, these being intelligent people, they would have been intelligent disputes about ethical purpose and legitimate method.
And that would have been the truly interesting conflict in the mind of Don Draper. In the show he spends a lot of time questioning himself, but hardly any of it questioning his job. But questioning his job would have been part of his job, because one of the ways that advertising developed was by becoming more self-aware.
From my little acquaintance with Mad Men, this seems spot on. But whereas my unarticulated dissatisfaction made me decide not to persevere with the show, Clive James can love it, watch it more than once from beginning to end, and still bring a clear critical head to bear on it. Moments like this, and there are many of them, are an adequate compensation for the aforementioned climate denialism, the occasional nastiness (‘very few of [Frank] O’Hara’s poems get far beyond the condition of not being prose’) and one or two passages so dense with references to old movies as to be incomprehensible.
The book was a gift from a friend who knows I watch too much television. It’s a fun read, and part of the fun is hating some bits of it.