Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook by Clive James. Yale University Press, 2016.
Clive James is a seasoned writer (television, cultural criticism, and poetry) and certified cultured smart guy. After he was diagnosed with cancer, he turned to reading and wrote Latest Readings. But he also spent a lot of time watching TV with his grown daughters. They worked their way through a whole lot of wonderful box sets and he thoroughly enjoyed viewing four or five episodes at a time and discussing them. He got more time than he thought, thanks to new therapies, and this book is the result. James is certainly far smarter than I am, and he must have had a more gentle chemotherapy regime than I did because the shows he discusses would have been too complex and deep for me to follow while ill — my focus was so poor that I was limited to Mythbusters.
James is a maestro of critical writing, throwing in classical and pop-culture allusions with the utmost grace, forcing me laugh out loud and read passages to whoever was seated near me. If I put all of these perfect turns of phrase into my review, I would end up typing out the whole book, so I’ll include just a sample of what he wrote about The Wire (with spoilers for season 1) below.
My only warning to people picking up the book is to be ready to take notes on television series you will want to watch. There isn’t an index, and his discussion is wide-ranging enough that it’s hard to remember where you saw him mention a show that you haven’t seen yet or that want to re-watch. (Here’s what I’m looking forward to now: NYPD Blue, The Wire, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and The Good Wife.) As he says in introducing the title of the book, “There was a time when that instruction didn’t even exist. But now it’s in our lives, and especially it’s in the lives of those of us who have run so short of time that time no longer matters, and who are thus able to choose exactly what we want to see next.”
Whether or not your time is short, promise me you’ll watch a bunch of smart television with your family.
— Warning: spoilers for The Wire in the quote from the book below —
“It’s [the drug sales empire] a whole society, except that it’s entirely antisocial. Very soon the show works the magic trick of any successful myth, and convinces you that the phantasmagoria you see in front of you is real and inevitable, and that the major characters are aspects of your own complex personality. I have no trouble seeing myself as Idris Elba. It’s as easy as seeing myself as Denzel Washington. (I speak as the kind of Denzel fan who watches Man on Fire again every time it comes on the screen.) Stringer Bell has beauty; grace; brains; energy. Why, this man is me! So of course he has to kill a few people here and there. Just as long as he continues with his programme of self-education in business practice, which will surely save him from the cycle of death. One of the show’s many triumphs is that we are so thoroughly convinced that Stringer Bell is an invaluable mastermind right up until the moment when he gets blown away, and that he gets blown away so casually, as in one of those real-life tragedies that make real life so hard to bear. On the other hand the trash scavenger Bubbles (Andre Royo) lives forever, though he has no powers to defend himself. We have art in order not to perish from the truth, as Nietzsche said in a notebook: a remark that Camus cites in his The Myth of Sisyphus when telling us how to survive in an absurd world. Nietzsche, Camus, and Bubbles, The Wire‘s philosopher with a shopping cart full of scrap.”