Diary of a Binge-Watcher

In the ’80s, Clive James said TV would never be more than “mediocre.” Then, devouring endless hours of television changed his mind.

clive james howard.

Luke Howard

The culture critic, memoirist, poet, and public intellectual Clive James worked as a TV critic for the Observer from 1972 to 1982, writing erudite TV criticism at a time when that was about as common as erudite TV. In his final column, he proclaimed that American television was never going to be more than mediocre. Nearly three decades later James, an Australian who has lived in the U.K. since the early 1960s, was diagnosed with leukemia. Ill, medicated, and stuck on the couch, he did what most people do for far inferior reasons: He started binge-watching.

Devouring series like The Sopranos, The West Wing, and Game of Thrones inspired him to correct himself at book length. The result is Play All, a loving and breezy set of essays about the shows he admires and the flowering of TV more generally. This territory is so well-trod it’s worn-out, but if James’ essays are not all revelatory, they are—as one would expect—witty, insightful and unpredictable. (He’s meh on Mad Men, anti–Breaking Bad, and ardently devoted to the not oft-discussed Band of Brothers.) More uniquely, Play All inadvertently catalogs the substantive and stylistic changes that criticism itself has undergone since the advent of the internet. James is an old hand, and he writes with the perspective and habits of one, which occasionally makes him seem out of touch and condescending, when it is not making him seem wonderfully free.

James is an incisive and hilarious critic with a relaxed, learned voice. He has read and seen everything, and assumes the reader can keep up. In addition to chapter-length examinations of series like The Wire, The Newsroom, and The Americans, James mentions Entourage, Dexter, Rubicon, The Lyon’s Den, Californication, Veronica Mars, Weeds, The Borgias, Borgen, The Killing, and Wallander, among many others, all of which he seems to have seen in close to their entirety. This list is so long, varied, and littered with trash that it further cements James’ authority. Anyone who watches only “good” television reveals himself as a television skeptic. Anyone who likes only “good” television reveals himself as an automaton. James’ affection for the abysmal The Following—“Would Kevin Bacon ever meet a character who was not a serial killer? That question kept us awake instead of putting us to sleep.”—proves he’s been bitten by the television bug. Occasional lapses in taste are proof one has any from which to lapse.

Play All is full of riotous turns of phrase, keen observations, and sick burns. Muscle heads who try to ape Schwarzenegger’s Conan are “sculpted tofu.” The Wire’s McNulty is “Ted Hughes with a gun.” James devastatingly describes a character from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip—James loves Sorkin as if Sorkin had not gone out of style—as “cute and cuddly small male Tom Jeter.” He has a British fixation on teeth, which he catalogs like a dental Linnaeus: The Americans’ Matthew Rhys’ teeth are “adaptable”; Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul’s are “unnaturally perfect”; and Boardwalk Empire’s Steve Buscemi’s are “clearly designed for biting the head off a live chicken.” His observation that Homeland’s Claire Danes cannot keep her head still in the field is the sort of thing I will never be able to un-notice (not unlike SNL’s observation that Damian Lewis’ lips are always pursed). And despite the millions and millions of words typed about Don Draper, I have never seen anyone else point out that though he is occasionally seen reading, this alleged autodidact never had any books in his house.

Much of the flair of James’ writing comes from the commanding, natural-sounding flow of a critic who avails himself of any pronoun he pleases. The internet, a tool that connects us to everyone, has shown us just how different we all are—just how many diverse opinions and experiences and reactions are papered over even by the friendliest we. We and the other-I avoiding pronoun you are still commonplace in criticism, but James works them with anachronistic frequency (though not as much as Pauline Kael, who used we more often than the queen). James writes of The West Wing’s President Bartlet, “Why do we find him so intensely human?” This phrasing has the advantage of sounding authoritative, elegant, and inclusive, unlike the navel-gazing, “Why do I find him so intensely human?” That’s the magic trick of we: It is even more egotistical than I, in that it dares to speak for others, but it sounds far less so.  

But a presumptuous pronoun can also bring the reader up short. James is of the scraggly opinion that Stockard Channing is somehow too much on The West Wing, as opposed to the mirror of her husband, a Sorkin fantasy of a first lady. Though he tries to compulsorily draft other members of his gender into this position—“I can’t have been the only male to have wondered, early on, if the depiction of the first lady might not have been designed to set up Bartlet as a philandering successor to FDR, if not JFK”—at least he attributes this (hideously off-base) stance to himself. Reading this, I thought, “Oh, that’s fun, he’s so wrong!” But when I got to the passage in which he writes, “You don’t want to face your memories of [Walter White’s] apprentice cook Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul as the most unbearable punk,” I was infuriated: how dare he disparage beloved, small male Jesse Pinkman in my name! And then there’s this passage, with no we or you in at all, but even more over-reaching: “President Bartlet is really Sorkin himself, correctly intuiting that this is the way America, and indeed the whole free world, would like the occupant of the Oval Office to be: omniscient, energetic, an ethical giant, a poet king.” Oh, that this were true.

One can occasionally feel James eyeing internet and millennial mores with a stink eye, pooh-poohing political correctness in ways that reveal himself to be an old. “One of the inherent conflicts within recent television is the tension between the urge to speak freely and the convention by which politically incorrect vocabulary must be avoided,” he says, illustrating his point by disparaging the convention that makes it unacceptable to use black, as opposed to African American, in print, like a codger wasting his energy decrying all those newfangled dial-up services. Also making James sound doddering: his insistence on describing the shows he loves as box sets, as if this were a meaningful category. It is not. Terrible shows have made it to DVD. Cassette tapes are not a type of music.

Clive James.
Clive James.

Des Willie

James writes as he always has, a way that could now be deemed “problematic.” He has a streak of sheepish butch heteronormativeness: Readers learn he’s got a thing for Kate Mara and Krysten Ritter and thinks Daenerys is not all that fly. He says that he disliked True Detective’s Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson so much—now there is an opinion!—that “it was a relief when the extravagantly gorgeous Alexandra Daddario took her shirt off.” This moment of gratuitous nudity was one of the prime examples offered up by critics, myself included, of True Detective’s lecherous male gaze. And yet I was energized to hear James say he enjoyed it, because it gives us the potential for a real conversation: a debate with a shrewd critic instead of a straw man—that hypothetical male viewer who is “doing it wrong,” all hepped up on female objectification.

Enjoying a woman’s bosom doesn’t make one an idiot, as James demonstrates by having all sorts of smart things to say about nudity and beauty. An actor’s physical attributes are a big part of the pleasure of TV, and yet we Americans don’t like to talk about this much. Writing about what a babe The Newsroom’s Sloan Sabbith is, in addition to a brain, James says, “We can’t mention any of that stuff, because this is America, whose culture insists that the love object not be objectified, and that love, a thing of the spirit, must transcend lust, a thing of the mere body.”

He’s right: We’re squeamish about looks—unless we’re lamenting the attractiveness gap, observing the slovenly man who, thanks to the laws of Hollywood, landed the gorgeous woman, a way to comment on relative beauty under cover of commenting on injustice. James also makes the observation that “one of the reason why box set screenwriters are so determined to populate the screen with a writhing orgy is their accurate perception that liberty is being furthered.” I have written a lot about nudity, and I had never thought about it this way, that, yes, as much as on-screen nudity is needless, objectifying, and disproportionately female, it’s also relatively new and not uptight.

As is perhaps in evidence, James writes as if there were no comments section. He makes the sort of grand, big-swinging statements that lose their punch when ungenerously dissected. He believes TV has benefited from the “thematic collapse and ethical putrefaction of movies,” a diagnosis that feels true-ish, until a cineaste correctly points out the scope of every independent and foreign and repertory film on offer. He peppers his prose with unnecessary bitchiness so fun to read but so impossible to defend that it is going out of style. In his chapter on Game of Thrones, he describes George R.R. Martin as writing “Dan Brownish prose,” an internet heresy that made me cackle. Sometimes if you don’t have something nice to say, scream it at the top of your lungs.

James insists on calling the shows he likes box sets because he doesn’t approve of the Golden Age of Television description, which he thinks elides television history. James has written a whole book about how great television currently is, but he doesn’t think it came, perfect and complete, out of nowhere. The process of improvement has been long, starting all the way back with The Rockford Files. In his section on The Sopranos, he writes, “The Sopranos is not sui generis: of course it isn’t,” pointing out that it has the same premise of The Godfather, to say nothing of Analyze This. To James, what is remarkable about TV is not originality, but its scope and depth. “The reason, while you are watching it that you spend no time being struck by the similarity to a thousand plots,” he writes of Band of Brothers, “is that you are continually being struck by subplots that are subtle like nothing else you have ever seen.” If only he had years and years more to tease out such subtleties.

Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook. Clive James, Yale University Press.

Read more articles in the Slate Book Review.