How simple life was back in the days of The Wire’s original British outing in the late 2000s, when television first attained the status of major cultural pursuit. Now the prestige-box-set binge is beyond comedy sketch cliché, Netflix is a euphemism, and there is a nagging suspicion that BBC4 has been taking up our Saturday nights with the European equivalents of Dalziel & Pascoe. We need a definitive reassessment of the so-called Golden Age of Television, and who better to do it than Clive James?
As a TV critic at the Observer from 1972 to 1982, James set the template for writing about television (and, quite possibly, all popular culture), employing his natural taste for both highbrow and low – and his way with a smartly spun, gently pointed gag. On leaving his post for other pursuits, including making his own programmes, he predicted that American television would never get cleverer than “the droll sarcasm of the desk sergeant Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) in Hill Street Blues”. Here, in recognition of his error, he takes on what he calls “long-form TV drama” – drama shows with a narrative arc, rather than a self-contained episodic structure – focusing mainly on the holy cows made by the US cable subscription channels, from The Sopranos to The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and ending with Game of Thrones. Though broadly chronological, it is not a history (for that, read Brett Martin’s excellent Difficult Men), nor does James get sidetracked by the means of distribution and all the business with videos, DVDs and streaming. This is a work of criticism, which is surely what we want.
There’s no doubt that James has still got it. Always good on characters – Mad Men’s Megan, for example, is “an insecure beauty who has chosen exactly the wrong man to lean on” – he also zeroes in on tropes, such as the new phenomenon of the “irritating daughter”, as seen in 24, Homeland and The Americans.
Then there’s the proper substance. He pinpoints Tony Soprano’s weakness and the theme of waste in The Wire with diamond clarity, before getting stuck in to the big question, one that haunts so many of us: what is it that fascinates, or compels, about these shows – particularly that ridiculous one with the dragons and the princesses? Even when you don’t agree with him, you will be pleasantly provoked. I’m not at all sure about his assessment of Lena Dunham, but the chapter that contains it, leading from Breaking Bad to France’s Spiral and the Scandinavian noirs and then on to 30 Rock and Girls, is as enjoyable a piece of cultural criticism as I’ve read in ages.
Still, there are issues. As ever, James’s cleverness threatens to overshadow his intelligence. You sometimes wish that he would hold back from the glibness of lines such as “Don Draper is Don Giovanni in a Brooks Brothers shirt” – when, in the same paragraph, he can conjure up that character’s “fatally attractive cool-jazz façade”.
Then there is how much he loves The Good Wife, a show that is much closer to formulaic, professional-class soap operas such as Gray’s Anatomy than it is to the HBO television-as-the-new-novel game changers. In the US, it was also screened on a network rather than on cable, which, by all other assessments, puts it in a different category. James also deals at length with another network show, Aaron Sorkin’s horribly overcooked West Wing. If these, then why not more significant network shows, notably The Wire’s forebear Homicide: Life on the Street – or just plain better ones, such as Friday Night Lights?
Yes, fine, it’s a matter of taste. It’s there in the word “notebook” in the subtitle: this is a personal view. That is clear in how much he writes about watching with his daughters and about the effects of his serious illnesses. And it’s there in some of the book’s best features, such as his heretical assessment of Breaking Bad’s Walter White as “plausible but dull” and his discussions of falling in love with actors (Borgen’s Sidse Babett Knudsen and Lena Headey in Game of Thrones are his favourites) and dumping shows (notably True Detective) because he couldn’t stand the cast. We all do it, but when did you last read about it?
Ultimately, however, Play All isn’t quite the book we needed. The first indication of this comes in the worrying whiff of overfamiliarity from his introduction, as he recounts received wisdom about intelligent viewers fleeing to box sets from reality TV and superhero movies. Perhaps, you may think, we are just too accustomed to reading about television, in all those reviews and previews that are still written in James’s image, and also in what he identifies as the “new critical language” of recaps and podcasts. Rather than an indication that he is out of touch, though, this is a reminder that James is, in addition to being a novelist, poet, essayist and public intellectual, also a populist. As he puts it in his preface, he would rather write in the voice of the “delighted consumer” than that of the “professional student of culture”.
Although that is a signal of his enthusiasm for the stuff, it is also, paradoxically, a warning that he’s not going to take it all that seriously. For him, it’s about enjoying entertainment, not appreciating art, and every now and then he reminds us of that, until, right at the end, he denies the form outright. “For the subtleties,” he writes, “we still need books.” Granted, that is from a book impressively and gratifyingly subtle, but it’s a great disappointment.
This article appears in the 17 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge