The conferral of the Nobel Prize for Literature on Bob Dylan had me pondering, as it did many others, on the unexpectness and the appropriateness of the award for the American troubadour. The Literature Nobel is more typically given to Bulgarian poets hardly known in America. It also had me feeling regretful that I had not been more attentive to the long and unpredictable arc of Dylan’s career, a career that began with the release of his first album when I was 17 years old. That same feeling of missed opportunities – to purchase albums, to attend concerts, to read accounts in The Rolling Stone or Spin – occurred when I read reviews of the recently released Bruce Springsteen autobiography or a long profile piece of Leonard Cohen by David Remnick in a recent issue of The New Yorker. To the list I would add Joanie Mitchell’s and the 90 year old Chuck Berry so that it’s not a white guys only list.
The careers of each of the above iconic pop cult musicians spans at least 40 years. Another cultural form of more recent vintage produces the same feeling of regret, although it’s a regret that is more easily remedied. Specifically what I am talking about is long-form television that emerged in the pre-cable years of the early 1980s with the production of Hill Street Blues and has accelerated at warp spped over the last decade with the expansion of delivery platforms like Amazon and Netflix which have vied with HBO and Showtime for our attention. Leonard Cohen has quite touring and Dylan may soon, but the SmartHub on my new flat screen gives me access to a sizeable television library.
Part of the reason I feel like I’m failing to stay in the game is that I’m a late adopter. I don’t have a premium cable package loaded with HBO and only recently became an Amazon Prime subscriber, thus giving me access to their catalog of shows. And I’m still doing Netflix only by mail, rather than streaming, which gives me a feeling of anticipation like that of the 19th century Americans who waited for the latest installment of a Dickens novel to arrive at the New York City dock. The same holds true when anticipating weekly programs like Mad Men that ran on AMC, part of my basic cable package. Yet, even if I did have a Hulu subscription, I’m not sure that I would make time for serious binge watching, for catching up with the many highly-reviewed series that I didn’t catch from the pilot show.
I’m quite familiar with the guilty pleasure of binge watching, having enthusiastically gone on, despite the voice in my head that said “put it away,” to the fourth episode of House of Cards or Homeland that was on the disk. I know the indulgence of submitting to one more half hour segment of Mozart in the Jungle (an Amazon series) when I should be in bed or at the gym or reading the latest Toni Morrison novel.
It seems that I have spent just as much time reading commentary and criticism about long-form TV series that I can’t make time for (like Justified, Shameless, Game of Thrones) as I do watching programming (The Americans, The Wire, and Breaking Bad) that has hooked me. Thus I found it a pleasure to find Clive James’s recent work, Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook, a quick but comprehensive overview of the box set phenomenon. The book is a short one, and made even shorter if you prefer to do as I did by skipping over the section on Game of Thrones, which I vow to see in its entirety some day, or by breezing past the section on difficult-to-locate Scandinavian detective series. I did pay close attention to his comments on Borgen, the 30-episode Danish political drama devoted to the challenges faced by a female prime minister and roughly modeled in its cast of characters on Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. James shares my high respect for this intelligent series, but in one of the rare slips in the book says that the story takes place in Sweden. [See my review of Borgen in an earlier blog: “It’s Not So Rotten in the State of Denmark.”]
In his conclusion James says that the study could be twice as long, and he’s right. Part of the reason for the brevity of the 200 page work and part of the reason for taking on the project in the first place is that James was diagnosed in 2010 with “a polite but insidious form of leukemia” that has been held in check for five years through chemotherapy and a rest regiment that created much time for binge watching. He was joined in the enterprise by one of his daughters who found series watching with the old man an easy mission of mercy. The Australian James served as television critic for The Observer from 1972 to 1982 – and in the years since has produced hundreds of pieces of literary and cultural criticism as well as four volumes of poetry – and so this 2016 publication represents a return to his roots.
James believes that popular culture deserves to be taken as seriously and to be written about as enthusiastically as high culture, although I’m not sure he would even want to make this distinction in domains. He’s hardly a snob (unless it be a preference for excellent work in whatever genre) and is as familiar with the latest Vin Diesel action pic as he is with Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Thus, he’s able to trace the ancient story-telling imprints on The Sopranos as well as offer insightful remarks on what makes David Chase’s television world different from Francis Ford Coppola’s movie world of The Godfather. He’s eager to show how the Spielberg-Hanks Band of Brothers project surpasses Saving Private Ryan and far outdistances The Pacific, a lame sequel. He gently suggests that its writers could have stolen from Norman Mailer’s approach to the war in the Pacific recorded in his 1948 novel The Naked and the Dead. In the same way he wonders whether Weeds, an eight-season satire about a suburban mom (Mary Louise Parker) who by selling cannabis supports her family after her husband dies, might be a more authentic program than the more widely admired Breaking Bad. The impact of James’s criticism is that I want to return to Jenji Kohan’s Showtime series that I gave up on midway through season three.
The witty James is a marvelous stylist, but the tone is never oft-putting. In his introduction he says that he aspires to write in the manner of the conversants around the proverbial water cooler rather than the academic in a university’s cultural studies departments. He’s a fan who shares his enthusiasms for the acting abilities of Allison Janney’s C.J. Cregg, the communication director in the Jed Bartlett West Wing and Eton-educated Dominic West who plays a Baltimore cop in The Wire (and for that matter Idris Elba, another Brit, this time black, who plays a drug kingpin). And in fair measure, he ridicules the mannerisms of Clare Danes, the bi-polar CIA anti-terrorism agent who, James claims, reduces the promising Homeland to a second and third to triviality.
James’s commentaries achieve validity because they are buttressed by his deep familiarity with the history of genres in both their literary and cinematic forms. Thus Boardwalk Empire is the latest addition to the gangster film genre that included Baby Face Nelson and The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond. And he’s wise about broader cultural movements against which a drama is set. His familiarity with David Ogilvey’s 1957 Confessions of an Advertising Man calls into question the apparent lack of self-criticism in Don Draper and company in Mad Men, a series that tries mightily to create the look and feel of mid-century fashion.
I think that James would be happy that I read and liked his book. But I think he would be happier were I tonight in the company of friends to binge watch past midnight segments of a series that provided him with so much joy, intellectual satisfaction, and distraction from his illness.