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PLAY ALL by Clive James


A Bingewatcher’s Notebook

by Clive James

Pub Date: Aug. 30th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-300-21809-1
Publisher: Yale Univ.

Eminent literary and cultural critic James (Latest Readings, 2015, etc.) comes back to an old beat: reviewing the offerings on the small screen.

The TV critic for London’s Observer from 1972 to 1982, the author briefly revisits some of the standards of the time, such as Hill Street Blues, while allowing that the landscape has much changed: time-shifting technology affords us the leisure of devouring a season or two of Game of Thrones or The West Wing at a sitting, binge-watching not what the networks necessarily want us to watch but what we wish to. Part of the critic’s work is to tell us precisely what we should wish to watch, of course, and here James, though doffing high-toned intellectualism, settles for the more elevated fare, about which he writes with unfailing insight. What makes The Sopranos, a James favorite, tick? There is a grammar of genre, and Tony Soprano is not entirely free to operate outside of it, even as David Chase broke some of the old rules; just so, James writes, the captains of the Star Trek franchise are all generic representatives of the “principal elder” archetype, even the youthful James Kirk “back in the innocent days of William Shatner’s first hairpiece.” Ranging among box sets of Band of Brothers, Mad Men, The Tudors, and the like, James delivers sometimes-profound aperçus (“the new mythology gets into everything, and the first thing it gets into is the old mythology”) and humorous asides: David Tennant, the erstwhile Doctor Who, will probably not be pleased to be described, with respect to another series, as “the only weirdly half-bearded middle-ranking policeman in England,” though Téa Leoni, of Madam Secretary, might appreciate James’ remark that “she looks the part, her lithe grace rising in stature from not being chased by Jurassic raptors.”

A gentler companion to Harlan Ellison’s The Glass Teat (1970), the only flaw of which is that it’s too short, leaving readers wanting more.