‘You might ask how a man who spent his days with the major poems of Browning could wish to spend his evenings with the minor movies of Chow Yun-fat,’ Clive James asks, rhetorically, in Play All: A bingewatcher’s notebook, then provides a near-tautological answer: ‘It’s a duplex need buried deep in my neural network.’ In mine, too, although my love of screen trash comes from childhood deprivation; we were never allowed an ‘idiot-box’. Mum might sneak next door to watch Peyton Place, but Dad viewed (so to speak) the then-new technology as mind rot.
It has ever been thus. The first scribes of cuneiform or Linear A were no doubt crucified for destroying human memory, and every advance in mass entertainment/communication since, from the printing press to the novel to radio to movies, has met with the same criticisms. Our still-newish magical pocket devices are the most recent focus of those ancient anxieties. In James’s words: ‘It’s as if classic literature had faded into the mind’s background, and images encountered on the screen had become one’s first frame of cultural reference.’ His particular anxiety is that for the next generation they might be ‘the only frame of reference’.
There was an idiot box in my boarding house when I escaped to Adelaide, and I fed my neural need with endless episodes of Star Trek and Mission Impossible and the wonderful Callan, punctuated by the odd twinge of guilt that I was neglecting my medical studies. James’s new book offers a free study pass, albeit a few decades too late. Watching television is such fun, he writes, and so entertaining at its core, ‘that the spontaneous response of the delighted consumer outranks the more ponderous consideration of the professional student of culture’. As such, he adds, ‘I tried to hang on to the sense of irresponsibility when I sat down to write.’
This leads to a fruitful conflict with his other core premise, one shared by many: that the current ‘long-form’ cable-television serials are where much of the best writing of our era is to be found. (James McNamara’s essay ‘The Golden Age of Television?’, published in the April 2015 issue of ABR, explores the reasons behind this renaissance.) James’s book, then, is both a quick romp through various boxed sets, and a simultaneously serious, if never ponderous, commentary. He can’t help the left-field aphorisms – ‘Sartre unaccountably failed to note in his book Being and Nothingness that “binge” and “being” are anagrams of each other’– but he also has serious criticisms of, say, the visually ravishing Mad Men.
Extended visual ravishment is one of the alluring properties of the boxed set, particularly those, like Game of Thrones, that come with the full palette of computerised special effects. Hollywood director Jim Wynorski (Sorority House Massacre II; Ghoulies IV) claimed that ‘breasts are the cheapest special effect in the business’, and Game of Thrones displays a disproportionate number of breasts, but it is the power of modern computerised imaging – the most powerful mimetic art we have short of virtual reality – that repeatedly astonishes.
James is not particularly interested in special effects; he long resisted Game of Thrones because he couldn’t imagine watching a show with dragons in it. ‘The essential difference between a good box-set drama and a comic-book movie’s relentless catalogue of mechanised happenings is that the first leaves you with something to discuss, and then discussion becomes part of the experience; the second does all your reacting for you.’ In the end, he succumbed to the drama of the show. Dragons notwithstanding, it leaves a powerful residue of things to discuss.
Here’s one. Rereading (quaint habit) Aeschylus’s Agamemnon recently (first episode in the first-ever boxed set, The Oresteian Trilogy), I arrived at the spot where the Chorus describes Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia in order to secure a favourable wind for his ships, and found I had to stop reading. This was not because of the play itself; Greek tragedies in general prefer to tell, not show; their murders and mayhem take place off stage. In Agamemnon this is even more pronounced: the Chorus breaks off the narrative, finding even the telling too unbearable: ‘The rest I did not see / Nor do I speak of it.’ My problem was that I could see it, all too clearly, courtesy of Game of Thrones. Iphigenia’s last cry – ‘Father!’ – instantly conjured up King Stannis Baratheon’s sacrifice of his daughter – at the stake, no less – and her plaintive cries of ‘Father!’ as she burns.
My point is not that Game of Thrones mines and reworks ancient myths and stories – of course it does, often cleverly – but that cinematic images, especially traumatic images, have a deep hold on our imaginations.
James writes brilliantly and at length of Game of Thrones, but also of one of the masterpieces of the long-form genre, The Wire, a series packed with ‘outstanding things’ and ‘so full of life – who wouldn’t want to get drunk with Bunk’, but which in the end also leaves him with an ‘abiding image’: ‘of The City of the Dead ... the nailed-up slum houses full of lime-dusted corpses’.
The emotional power of such images is only part of the power of the boxed set – and not part at all of a dialogue-driven show like The West Wing, another of James’s favourites – but in many of the shows it adds to an ambitious no-holds-barred ‘show-not-tell’ program, a realism freed from network constraints. ‘As well as artistic freedom,’ James McNamara argues in his essay, ‘cable gave HBO another advantage: blood, sex and profanity.’ It also offered more freedom to confound our Hollywood-bred expectations. Comparing The Sopranos to various film predecessors – especially The Godfather – James notes that ‘our expectations have been sentimentalised by the movies’, whereas ‘the boxed-set, with more time to explore psychology, has done something to save us from the kind of uplift that lowers the IQ’. He’s right, at least in this case. The Godfather indulges our attraction to what The Book of Common Prayer calls ‘the glamour of evil’, whereas The Sopranos is more a species of Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’. This is one of the many ‘gates of discrepancy’ between our expectations and the larger-canvas possibilities of the new ‘long-form’ that James is keen to explore.
Game of Thrones opens gate after gate of discrepancy, beginning with the shock beheading of Sean Bean – the apparent hero of the show, a kind of medieval Atticus Finch – in the first season. Perhaps the premature death of Stringer Bell in The Wire is an antecedent, destroying our faint hopes that at least one of the doomed might escape the drug-addled quagmire, but Game of Thrones continues to kill off our favourites (and unfavourites; like God, George R.R. Martin is an equal opportunity executioner) without warning. Martin’s argument is twofold: firstly, in real life, that’s what happens – i.e. arbitrary shit – but also, more interestingly, what are the stakes for readers (or viewers) if not all characters are in real jeopardy? Where is the suspense?
In The Wire, all the characters will die, sooner or later, even if they first shift to fill a niche vacated by another’s death. The Baltimore of this boxed set is a boxed-in ecology of wickedness; the ending of the final season is a profound summation of this: Dostoevskian in its pessimism, to risk a ponderous phrase. I didn’t see that end coming, but immediately realised it was the only psychologically possible ending. Which is the paradoxical heart of great storytelling: continuing surprise at plot or character developments, which simultaneously, or perhaps a millisecond later, seem psychologically inevitable. And often in retrospect, blindingly obvious: why didn’t I think of that? James doesn’t share my enthusiasm for Breaking Bad, a masterclass in such narrative, but he has plenty to say about it and everything else from Mad Men to The Americans to The Borgias: surprising and often funny insights which strike you as true a millisecond later. Other gates of discrepancy open throughout the book: between the film Saving Private Ryan, say, and its spin-off series, Band of Brothers; and – a recurring theme – between our unconscious type-casting of actors, and the traces those preconceptions leave on new roles.
Having been one of the best television commentators of the pre-boxed set era, he has now seen more cable series than most people half his age, if only because he regularly binge-watches four of five episodes per Saturday night. The result is a very different book from his recent more ‘responsible’ – but never ponderous – Poetry Notebook (2014), but of course we need both, duplex needs of that kind being buried in most brains, if too often one suppresses the other. Which begs the question: who will be the first television writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature? Or – on the subject of binge addiction – the first writer of video game scripts? I guess the answer is still blowin’ in the wind.