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Review: Clive James, ‘Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook’

Clive James / Screengrab from BBC
September 2, 2016

Even if every last critical judgment in Clive James’ book about the new golden age of television were off the mark, the thing would still be worth reading for the humor. Nancy Marchand’s Livia Soprano, James writes, "ended up even scarier than Janice: something you would hesitate to say about Madame Mao." Lena Headey’s Cersei is "Proust’s mother, who tormented him so much by willfully neglecting to climb the stairs to kiss him good night that he spent his entire life writing a long novel in revenge." Steven Seagal’s brow is "creased with the effort of wondering how he came to put on weight despite his diet of Asian health food." A little-known actor’s awkward beard makes him look "like D.H. Lawrence after an unsuccessful night with Frieda." The only gift of Drea de Matteo’s Adriana, also of The Sopranos, "is for wondering why a fluttering of her eyelashes is not in itself sufficient to vacuum the carpets."

In 20 years or so of adult reading, and even a few before that, there is no writer whose work I have taken more pleasure in than James’. That is in part due to the jokes, but also to the liberal and humane range (poetry, memoirs, novels, a translation) and to the fact that his critical judgments are so often right on the mark. Back in the ‘70s he was the TV columnist for The Observer, known at the time as an "attacking critic" for his harsh treatment of unworthy fare—a reputation he has since claimed was undeserved. Perhaps the epigraph of this new and overwhelmingly positive book on the "prestige" shows of the last 15 years, a remark of Kurt Tucholsky’s that "I mustn’t complain. It’s so good to say ‘Yes’ for once," is an acknowledgement of the old polemical reputation.

And what’s there to be negative about? Precious little. The energy of American movies from the 1970s, married to a form that bears a strong resemblance to the serialized novels of the Victorian era, has generated series upon series fairly regarded as masterworks. Scorsese and Polanski plus Eliot and Dickens equal David Chase and David Simon. James is going with the general drift by saying "Yes" to all this, though knowledge of his degraded health—he’s been fighting a surprisingly successful rearguard action against leukemia for years now—lends a harrowing quality to his coverage of the duds. No dying man should have to watch The Newsroom.

One can quibble with some of the calls, of course. Even though James puts Aaron Sorkin’s tedious Jeff Daniels vehicle in its place, he overrates the writer’s work on the whole, especially The West Wing, which is most certainly not "our first frame of reference for thinking about the presidency"—though I’ll allow this may be more true if the "our" in that sentence refers to Brits and Australians, who have had a longer-lasting attachment to the fantasy of President Bartlet than have Americans. The relatively minor errors can also be forgiven, though the editors at Yale University Press, of all places, ought to have caught the facts that Weeds aired on Showtime, not HBO, and that in Band of Brothers, David Schwimmer’s Sobel enjoys a reign of terror that lasts only one episode, not the "first few," that Damian Lewis’s Winters was never a "sergeant" in the show, and that the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest, though terrible, was not one in which Easy Company took part.

James devotes the book (alternate titles for which, he tells us, included "Band of Thrones" and "From the Bada Bing to King’s Landing") to an assessment of the remarkable work done in recent years. He gets Mad Men exactly right: a gorgeous production, anchored by a towering performance, but done in by the two-dimensional attitude the writers take toward the era in which it is set. The flaw with The Americans isn’t fatal, but kind of a beauty mark: the show’s annoyingly slipshod attention to realism in the little things, and so in helping the audience fully suspend its disbelief. How are two growing kids meant never to find the cache of guns, wigs, and communications gear Philip and Elizabeth have hidden in their laundry room?

James’ half-century or so on the culture beat equips him to take the long view. He points out that Nancy Marchand’s career tended to involve playing stuck-up WASP types, such that Livia Soprano represents a kind of swan song as gleeful self-debasement—and, by the way, the name is almost certainly David Chase’s nod in the direction of another television matriarch-cum-femme fatale, Siân Phillips’ Livia in I, Claudius. We are also reminded—informed, in my case—that Charles Dance was once offered the role of James Bond but turned it down, such that Tywin Lannister has given the actor a cultural prominence that his less-noticed performances (everyone should go watch The Jewel in the Crown at their first opportunity) deserved but never enjoyed. Of The Wire, James points out that Jim True-Frost’s Pryzbylewski cracking the Barksdale crew’s code is a feat of screenwriting and directing rarely even attempted on account of its difficulty: the realistic portrayal of the solving of a technical problem on screen. Somehow, Simon and company pulled it off.

It’s not all roses and kitty cats. Like Marion Cotillard’s Minotaur in the labyrinth of Leonardo DiCaprio’s dreams in Inception, the attack critic lurks. James, like everyone else with taste, loved Band of Brothers, and was bitterly disappointed by its sequel, The Pacific, which was "true, too true, to the incoherence of [its] material." Spielberg "did The War of the Worlds better than he did this. Even his epic comedy 1941 was better; and the only other thing that 1941 was better than was the nineteenth-century Irish potato famine." A page later: "Watching The Pacific is like being shackled to the couch and forced to see Pearl Harbor for a second time. It almost makes you sorry that the Japanese lost."

The broad thesis at work in these essays can be reverse-engineered from James’ comparison of Spielberg’s war miniseries to the film that preceded them: "Take the Private Ryan care for texture and apply it over an area that compares for size like the Sistine ceiling to the Mona Lisa, and you’ve got the scope of Band of Brothers." Add the fact that Hollywood turns out so much that rates spectacle over story and character, and we are living in a time where the baroque, sprawling novelizations of TV regularly trump the classically constrained products of the film industry.

But for all the greater narrative freedom that they enjoy, not to say the relentless darkness and amorality of their worlds, certain basic laws of storytelling cannot be violated. In a masterpiece of an essay on Game of Thrones, while discussing the show’s famous tendency to off its protagonists, James makes the kind of point so obvious in retrospect that you wish you had thought of it on your own. The showrunners, he writes, can never kill off Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion.

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 word’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 on 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.

All revolutions in art, James notes while channeling Richard Wilbur, are palace revolutions: the same principles continue their work beneath the surface of apparently diverse regimes. The world is a lucky place to have James still here to illuminate those rules at work in this latest moment of creative flourishing. If it’s at all possible, Mr. James, do you think you could stick around to point them out in whatever it is that happens next?

Published under: Book reviews , TV Reviews