Books: Play All — Ariadne’s Labyrinth |
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Ariadne’s Labyrinth

THIS BOOK COULD GO ON for twice its length, but I think I have made the points that I was bound to make, and anyway I have not enough health left to do everything, much as I would like to. The concept of the superman is so deeply embedded into popular entertainment that one can easily be made to feel a failure for no longer being able to leap tall buildings with a single bound. But as we have seen with so many of the box sets, less corny concepts are increasingly likely to make their appearance on the little screen, even as the large screen becomes cornier than ever. At the very moment when Milla Jovovich, on the big screen, must carve her way invincibly through yet another busload of automata, the equally striking Julianna Margulies, still playing Alicia Florrick on the small screen, goes on with the much more difficult struggle for justice among human beings. She’s an atheist, so she can’t be president unless she lies; but as a pure soul plunged into the acid bath of the law she can be Princess America at her most complex, thoughtful, tender, and brave. The Good Wife isn’t even a box set drama in the new sense. It’s a television drama in the older sense of a CBS network weekly serial subject to cancellation season by season. It’s still up there on television because the public loves it, and it’s packed into boxes so that we can pay for it all over again. When the Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer lost his position, he calmed himself down by binge-watching more than a hundred episodes of The Good Wife. I know something of how he felt. For nearly all the time I have been working on this book, Lucinda and I have been watching at least four episodes of that very show every Saturday afternoon. It’s a reminder that in calling this recent upsurge of creativity a Golden Age of Television we have merely labeled part of an evolutionary process with an ad hoc descriptive term, an only slightly less than usually misleading specimen of the academic nomenclature that divides up the history of anything into manageable chunks. The Good Wife might have started going to air before there were boxes to fit it in, but it began with subtleties that later developments have not rendered obsolete, a fact underlined by the confidence with which it continues to deploy them.

There is a bad tendency among instant commentators on the media to suppose that all qualities began with the new wrinkle: but most of those qualities wouldn’t have got there without being inherited from the old wrinkle. Luckily there is another brand of commentators, usually older and therefore less caught up in the evanescent glamour of the instant, who can reach back into their memories and point out that this business of continuously good writing throughout the long run of a show really began with The Rockford Files, and that a lot of what you love about Bradley Whitford unsuccessfully browbeating Janel Moloney was already there in the way James Garner talked sardonic rings around the hoodlums. Attractively incarnating a classic Dodge City sheriff redeployed as a U.S. marshal with the freedom to operate of a modern private eye, Timothy Olyphant in the excellent Justified would scarcely have a role to play if Jim Rockford had not first emerged from his trailer like Philip Marlowe with better taste in socks: not even the prodigiously creative Elmore Leonard, who supervised the expansion of Justified from its seed in one of his own short stories, could make up an entire tradition on his own, although sometimes when you watch Get Shorty again you might think he could. My wife, incidentally, loves Timothy Olyphant, but without Justified she might have had to discover him as the semiandroid star of that junk-channel staple movie Hitman, his fine head shining like a shrink-wrapped cantaloupe complete with bar code.

And so it goes on, from generation to generation: innovations remembered and developed, with very little that is entirely new, just as there are very few reactions in science that involve new elements, although occasionally, in the world of moving pictures, there will be one discovery, such as the invention of the close-up—the cinematic equivalent of discovering that plutonium had the right profile for neutron capture—that seems to change the game. But Rembrandt had already invented the close-up, and even he, however illustrious, was only one link in a long chain. In the cinematic story department, especially, the same rule applies that Richard Wilbur said was true for poetry: every revolution is a palace revolution. Nobody can be first: all you can be is the latest. To the credit of the many show-runners whose work is mentioned in this book, they know very well the long line of inheritance that leads up to them. For those of us with a less thorough practical knowledge, the past is nowadays being repackaged into box sets as if specifically to make us wise. Such a care for history is one of the undeniably good things about this marketing development. It serves the producer, but only because it serves the consumer first: capitalism the right way up.

Keeping the encouraging fact in mind that enlightenment is being furthered, we can safely note that Gresham’s Law has not been magically repealed: badness will get in if it can, and any fad can become a threat. The box set concept has become so fashionable that a benchmark movie such as Fargo is refashioned as a series of television stories with the distant but certain intention of putting the stories into a box. The results are very good, but one quails to think of what they will be like when the same thing happens to The Bridges of Madison County. In France, the export success of Spiral was replicated with another police saga, Braquo, and this time there was no female captain to keep the male blunderers of the special squad in line, so they blundered even worse. The only female on the squad was in a subordinate position and contributed little except an unusually sour face, projecting, by French standards, an almost Scandinavian sense of inner gloom. Without a female captain’s guiding hand to make sure that the criminals always escaped through the back door, the criminals could now escape through the front door as well, while our boys in the leather jackets and the three-day beards—all of them looking like grunge chic models for Vogue Hommes—ran in all the wrong directions. The show is so well directed that you need eyes to go with your brains to see that it is fundamentally dire, although not quite as dire as the long-running Swedish police series Beck, which in Britain gets the coveted double-episode slot on BBC 4 while Braquo, for a first transmission, has to settle for a few thousand people on Netflix. BBC 4 (the only indispensable British channel, and therefore continually threatened with budget cuts) screens two episodes of Beck back to back every Saturday night in exactly the same double slot that started off occupied by The Killing but which you might have thought had been made safe for France by the popularity of Spiral.

The obvious intention of the BBC 4 double slot is to create the sensation of binge-watching within a restricted time frame, and it sort of works if you believe that the luxury of a long flight in first class can be reproduced by a short-haul flight from LaGuardia to Cleveland. A few of Braquo’s episodes, by the way, are not entirely devoted to the usual struggle in French policier shows between bent cops we like and Internal Affairs cops we don’t: occasionally the mauvais garçons turn out to be Islamic extremists, or anyway they are Serbians who know where the Islamic extremists are. In that way the most intractable problem faced by the French forces of law at least gets a mention. But on the whole, in the French police shows pour l’exportation, the way to deal with the question of militant Islam has been not to deal with it. Not long after I started watching the box set of Braquo I got the sense that its picture of criminal Paris, for all the horror of the torture scenes and the frantic, choppily edited action as the boys went booming around the banlieues in a BMW, was only pussyfooting toward reality. Then came the night of November 13, 2015, and suddenly the show looked obsolete, as if it was about nothing. But I shall go on watching, because it is so well made, and the subtitles make me feel cosmopolitan in a way that a few lines of Dothraki dialogue don’t quite achieve.

On a world scale, so many new boxes are being generated that it’s getting hard to keep up, but perhaps there is no need to fret. Something outstanding like Catastrophe will get plenty of media coverage: you don’t have to find it by yourself. (Something isn’t unfindable just because it’s on Amazon Prime, although there are people who think that that’s where Jimmy Hoffa is buried.) And anyway, the old boxes—I mean the prebox boxes, the shows that you once had to catch on the air if you were to stay up to speed—are available in sufficient numbers to keep you going until death and beyond. (What are the hard-core TV fans doing in eternity? They’re watching the complete run of Police Story, so as to see how Michael Mann, though he was nominally only a writer on that show, might have begun working out his color scheme for Miami Vice. Then they watch Miami Vice again. Then they watch a dozen boxes of Inspector Montalbano, to find out what the police have been doing in Italy. Then they watch about ten years of Kommissar Rex, to find out what police dogs have been doing in Austria. Then they ...) As we watch the older shows, I and both my daughters find that we notice more, because the new stuff has racked up our perceptions by a notch at least. In every chapter of The Good Wife, for example, you will find a neat treatment of some difficult theme that the average box set drama stretches out to a length that can easily seem indulgent. In the sixth season, Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry), after he is finally sprung from unjust imprisonment, must further endure dreary questioning from dreary pretrial service supervisor Joy Grubick (played with impeccable dreariness by Linda Lavin), confidently exercising her duty to ask him obvious questions and think a long time about his answers. Alicia also is forced into the slow orbit of Joy Grubick and assumes, like Cary, that the supervisor’s painstakingly written opinion will further the interests of the very bent, very bald state’s attorney James Castro (Michael Cerveris). But when the crunch comes, it turns out that the dreary lady is the embodiment of true justice. This seemingly minor story line demonstrates several of the show’s favorite themes all at once. It demonstrates the theme that our bunch of glamorously quick-thinking lawyers can sometimes miss the point simply through being so clever. It also demonstrates the theme that a face is hard to read: from the way Lavin plays her, you would swear that the supervisor was as pedantically malicious as Robespierre, yet when she comes up trumps you realize that the awkward pauses she induced in her interrogations were not a cruel tactic, they were pauses for thought.

What it doesn’t demonstrate, however, is any clear answer to the viewer’s permanently recurring question of whether Alicia’s firm should be taking money from a drug lord. Though Cary is being framed, the prosecution’s general case that our lawyers are profiting from illegality is true. Objections to the show’s lofty neutrality on this point are probably just objections to the culture of the United States, but it’s a big “just.” Those of us in other countries can get used to the standard Good Wife office layout in which all the walls are glass: the door can shut on the sound of a conversation but not on the sight of the people having it, so everyone else in the office spends half their day wondering who among their colleagues and superiors is saying what to whom and why. This cultural quirk, a society reflected in its architecture, merely induces all the right tensions that are good for drama.

But for the loyally viewing foreigner it’s a lot harder to accept that our favorite lawyer Alicia is being partly financed by the murderous drug lord Lemond Bishop (Mike Colter), although when a black actor plays a black hat it’s presumably even better for community cohesion than if he plays a white hat: it must mean that at last there are enough black white hats, a long way to have come since the comparatively recent days—less long ago than the length of my lifetime—when Sidney Poitier was up there on his own, like Matt Damon on Mars. Besides, the show has plenty of nonwhite actors in sympathetic roles. From the politically correct angle, it’s The Love Boat brought up to speed. Nor can you fault the show’s attitude to gender equality and female fulfillment. As to gender, it has everything from the insatiably ambitious Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) right down to—or up to, if you prefer—the glitteringly gifted new hire Candace Frawley (Tonya Glanz), who clearly could go all the way but prefers to go home and raise a family. As to sexuality, it has Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi), she of the big boots and the little legs, who keeps us, and half the characters whether male or female, erotically fascinated throughout the show: a vamp for all seasons, and it isn’t even her fault. Her eyes were made for us to drown in, and for her to watch us struggle. (The rumor that she might be written out in season 6 induced global apprehension.) For the current generation of young women devoted to the show, watching Kalinda must be like their mothers reading The Female Eunuch, especially since lingering puritanical conventions of American showbiz dictate that even the multivalent Kalinda, along with the rest of the cast, can have sex only by suggestion. If it ever should occur that Peter Florrick (Chris Noth) resumes his wayward ways—at the time of writing the matter has been in doubt for six seasons—we can be certain that the female intern might lose her shirt, but that he will never lose his trousers.

If a Martian anthropologist arrived by flying saucer and set about investigating the sexuality of earthlings through reference to the American cinematic and television archive, he, she, or it would deduce that human copulation was something that takes place mainly in the kitchen, with the male pressing his trousers tightly against a presumably bare-bottomed female splayed on the kitchen counter, right there among the knives, cheese graters, and wineglasses still glistening with suds. Alicia and Will, however, are allowed to share a proper bed and some nice misty footage. There is always mist; although The Good Wife, to give due credit, has less of it than you might have expected when Alicia came wavering on stage in the first episode, still shattered by the revelation that her husband had found her less than enough. Julianna Margulies was built to walk on clouds, but the character she plays is down to earth, even to the extent that you sometimes wonder why she does not strangle her mother Veronica (Stockard Channing: a terrifying performance) or slap the face of her irritating daughter Grace, played by Makenzie Vega with an ineradicable teen sulk that deserves an Emmy of its own. (Young Grace goes missing in season 3, thereby transmuting herself from the category of Irritating Daughter to the even more nerve-wracking category of Possibly Kidnapped Daughter. Alicia copes.) But Alicia isn’t perfect, even though she looks it. A hyperfeminist might say that an ordinary looking woman would have been more edifying in the role, but that would be like asking why, on the main French terrestrial channel TF1, the cool and graceful Carole Rousseau is the chosen anchor for six brain-curdling programmes about the no-go areas of Paris. It’s to help make us feel cool and graceful, instead of desperate. Alicia is helping us to look at the unsettled and unsettling interface between the law and lawlessness, and if she weren’t there we might not look. Fulfilling that task, she belongs to the world, even when saying things—“I haven’t always been the best mom”—that could belong only to America.

But a good labyrinth is made from Ariadne’s thread. It leads everywhere, and The Good Wife leads you not only back a bit into the network world that was there before cable, but forward into the galaxy of outlets that come next. Soon there will be no more box sets or even any DVDs, but the onrush of product will not be checked: on the contrary, it will be upgraded to a tumult that pours directly into the computer before your eyes, pending the day when the computer itself becomes an implant in your head. As Borges foresaw in his clairvoyant blindness, every library is a cyclotron. In the library of moving pictures, the continuity of the labyrinth is provided by the limitless mutability of themes and the limited supply of actors. There is a limited supply also of writers and producers, but that constraint doesn’t show until things run thin. You don’t have to travel through the cosmos of heavy viewing for very long, however, before you notice the same faces turning up. In Scandinavian TV they turn up straight away because in Scandinavia, wherever that is, there are only about ten actors, so fairly soon you will see a serial killer in one box set reborn as a detective in another. In Germany, Bruno Ganz is your only man to play the wise old chief of the antiterror squad. His face, weary with hard-won knowledge, confers automatic historic weight. But that’s also what he’s doing in Downfall: he’s giving Hitler an upside. Ganz is everywhere because there’s nobody else in his class. In the USA there are more actors than there are ordinary people in some small nations, but even in the vast population of American actors there are only a certain small percentage with the talent and the appearance to hold the screen. Below the salary level of big-screen stardom—the actors who are billed above the title—there is a general range of big-screen actors who are in constant demand because of the qualities they confer simply by appearing. As Anthony Lane has pointed out, anything is better if it has Stanley Tucci in it. Tucci does thoughtful decency. He also does thoughtful evil: moving into the area of box sets of old TV shows, you find him being villainous in Murder One, a show with an ancestral relationship to The Good Wife. The same relationship could be posited for LA Law, and, indeed, for Perry Mason: the connections of inheritance are endless. But there are only so many good actors to go around, so it is really no surprise that if you binge-watch the big boxes for long enough you will get familiar with what seems like a repertory company. Say goodbye to Dominic Chianese as Uncle Junior in The Sopranos and you may say hello to him as he appears behind the judge’s bench in five episodes of The Good Wife. Watch the boxes long enough and you start wondering whether there will be a show based on the NFL in which Stockard Channing plays a linebacker for the Chicago Bears.

The show-runners try to cast for unfamiliarity, especially at the start of a new show: when The Wire got started, nobody had heard of Dominic West or Idris Elba, because they had received their thespian training in some faraway foreign land across the Narrow Sea. But inevitably, as time rolls on and you keep piling up the boxes, actors who belong in one box migrate into another. Sometimes you wish, on their behalf, that they could migrate back again. If Claire Danes in Homeland drives you crazier than her character, take a look at her in the TV show that launched her career, My So-Called Life; she was terrific, and you might be sorry that the show was canceled after nineteen episodes. But it’s doubtful that she stayed sorry for long, because the cancelation left her free to be cast in Baz Luhrmann’s film of Romeo and Juliet, in which she is a lyric poem all by herself.

Actors have to go with the market, which can be cruel. It is at its most cruel when it ignores you completely, but it can also be cruel when it doesn’t. This book had its real beginnings in a winter when Lucinda and I sat down to watch NYPD Blue right through from the top for the second time in both our lives. More certainly than ever, Dennis Franz’s performance as Andy Sipowicz emerged as something monumental. The handsome guys in the show came and went: David Caruso, after finding out from the flame-out of Jade that a movie career was not for him, recovered his stellar luster in CSI Miami, where he parlayed, into international recognizability, the art of standing sideways and putting on and taking off his dark glasses. Jimmy Smits arrived on his way to The West Wing. But for the twelve solid years that show-runner Steven Bochco’s most startling creation was running, it was the balding overweight guy, Sipowicz, who was the living symbol of the show, a reformed alcoholic sweating in his short-sleeved shirt on a summer’s day, suffering for his wayward son, breathless from unbelieving apprehension when he got the ideal woman. (ADA Sylvia Costas, as played by Sharon Lawrence, is a plausible candidate for an earlier incarnation of Alicia Florrick.) Dennis Franz’s Sipowicz was a foundation performance in the Hall of Fame of modern American television. Yet afterward, when you saw Dennis Franz again, he was the airport cop yelling bad lines at Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2.

And that’s the story of a successful actor. Sitting safely at home, we scarcely realize that these people are on parade in a slave market. We think of them as our property, and in a way they are; because the territory they inhabit has become incorporated into our mental landscape. Moving pictures are one of the main ways that the world is transmitted to us. We need to remember, though, that the very best they can do is not to tell us outright lies about that reality. For the subtleties, we still need books. While writing this book I was still reading half the day before I watched at night, and without what I read I would soon have lost touch with the nuances that matter. Only a third of the way into Rohinton Mistry’s novel A Fine Balance, it became chasteningly clear to me why the screens could never tell me enough. The book is about poverty, and you might get something about a brave mother and her clever son from a movie or a TV show, but not even the memories of your own life can give you what the book does, because this is poverty of a different order. Reading about the sanitary arrangements in the Bombay slums, you quickly see why even the most realistic set dressing in Game of Thrones is essentially cosmetic. The imprisoned Tyrion may graphically complain about having been left to sit in his own shit, but you won’t see it happen. How could you? It’s only a TV show, and the TV shows, like the movies, are still camped in the dreamland that Elmer Rice made up for his 1930 novel A Voyage to Puerilia after he noticed that nobody on screen ever had to bother about the elimination of body waste.

A screen creation can’t possibly give you the whole texture of the real: it can only strive to ensure that the picture it projects lends as little support as possible to the unreal. It is a dream that tries to hold back dreamland. Luckily the people in charge of Game of Thrones and the other big box sets have liberal values; and a national industry devoted to propagating illiberal values is quite hard to imagine, although Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union both had time to try before they died of their own beliefs, and in Egypt until quite recently the government-controlled television network was still screening a serialized drama based on that obscene old anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Western intellectuals are quite fond of the idea that our systems of entertainment impose a repressive ideology, but really they impose nothing except a bewildering complexity. A Western intellectual stupid enough to envy the ideological simplicity of life in a culture whose ethics are controlled by theocrats ought to be locked up for as long as it takes him to laugh at an Egyptian television comedy series. For professional reasons I once had to sit through several episodes of one of these, and I thought at the time that if this was the product of the supposedly most liberal of the Arab nations, then one day we would be at war on a world scale. Eliot once spoke of the laceration of laughter at what ceases to amuse. He never had to experience the laceration of not laughing at what never begins to amuse; and we should take steps to ensure, by protecting our freedoms of expression, that our future generations never have to experience that either.

The long-form TV drama is the product of a free country. But the free country doesn’t have to be America. Any free country can do its own equivalent of American cultural imperialism as long as it is willing to put creative investment into the part of the enterprise that matters most: the story. In that respect, everyone can take a tip from the Scandinavians. They had faith in their own gloom. It was like their faith that pickled herrings can be a tempting snack. Not once have the Scandis succumbed to the age-old assumption of the media organizations in the middle-sized nations that they can have an American-style success if they get themselves an American star. Combining their efforts, the British and Irish built their serial killer serial The Fall around the idea that their sexy female detective would wield more oomph if she was played by Gillian Anderson, whose career was established in the long-running American serial The X-Files. But casting her in The Fall looked less like a big-budget outlay than a confession of nervousness: it harked back to the postwar day when the British hauled in Brian Donlevy to pose as a scientific professor—looking and enunciating like a tough cop, as so many scientific professors do—in The Quatermass Xperiment. Enticingly impressive as the kind of implacable detective who looks ethereal in her underwear, Anderson, her to-die-for eyes looming large in the small frame of the BBC cameras, made local headlines in the kind of muffled casting coup that announces nothing except an insufficient budget to hire anybody more prominent. And although it was good to see that Jane Campion was willing to put her talented efforts into a long-form drama, New Zealand’s export bid Top of the Lake lost a lot more than it gained by bringing in Elisabeth Moss to play its female detective. She showed all of the diffident fragility that had marked her performances in The West Wing and Mad Men, but in this role there was nothing more for her to show; and her glowing presence merely emphasized the pallor of the enterprise in all other respects, despite a very good-looking lake. In the same part, a local discovery might have laid the foundation of an international career. Alas, show business and pious wishes seldom go together. The massive global presence of the U.S. output distorts the force of gravity in any small nation’s industry; and there was also the factor—so frequently decisive, yet so seldom acknowledged—of originality. For Jane Campion, the script was unusually recognizable. Privately I thought it was like Twin Peaks without the Log Lady, and I was soon in that cruelly indifferent state of not caring very much whether I missed an episode. Perhaps I had been spoiled long before by what the Americans could achieve by focusing their energies on the script without caring about exotic geography. If one of their cop shows is strong enough on the page, it doesn’t matter if the New York precinct station has been rebuilt on a back lot in Los Angeles.

Working your way through all the boxes of NYPD Blue—a perfectly delightful occupation—you can watch the single-episode procedural story morphing into the overarching serial story of the complete season, and the seasons themselves becoming chapters in the total narrative arc: a developmental process which we can now, in retrospect, clearly see as the preparation for the box set drama. But prescience might have told us the same thing when we were watching Shogun back there in 1980. A maxi mini-series set in old Japan, it still looks new enough to make you wonder whether James Clavell, whose inspiration it was—he not only wrote the novel, he ran the whole gigantic production—might not have been the true founding father of the creative era that we have been considering in this book. Shogun not only has the fully working swords of Game of Thrones, it has the same violent terrors of a lawless society, except that they are exquisitely decorated with the kimonos and shy smile of Yôko Shimada. Even further back in television history, the show’s leading man, Richard Chamberlain, put in five years playing Dr. Kildare, but as the English navigator working his way to power in an ambience bristling with bare blades, he looks forward to Ned Stark doing the same in Westeros. And the all-wise Shogun himself, as played by the great Toshirô Mifune, is the very prototype of the long line of wise men that culminates in Tywin Lannister. The Japanese have a special name for the wise man: he is the genrô, the principal elder. We may grieve that Charles Dance pronounced Tywin’s last words, but we can be certain that we will see the principal elder yet again, under another actor’s name; unless the tradition of the all-knowing sage was finally made untenable by Yoda in the Star Wars movies, backward his lines speaking in common sense defiance of.

I’ve only just remembered that Edward James Olmos, playing Admiral William Adama, commander of the endlessly fleeing space fleet in Battlestar Galactica, is a principal elder too. And I suppose Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) of Star Trek: The Next Generation is another; and Captain James Kirk of the original Star Trek also was, back in the innocent days of William Shatner’s first hairpiece. (The Shatner hairpiece never really achieved warp speed until he starred in T. J. Hooker.) If SF were an inherently bad genre, like action comedy, I would have ignored it; but all too often it was full of ideas and invention, so I never could. I was already hooked years before I saw every episode of The Invaders. I was hooked in childhood by the movie serial Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, starring Buster Crabbe as Flash and Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless of Mongo. If I started remembering all the SF shows, however, I would end up making notes for a whole new book in which to discuss why big budgets and CGI effects have actually helped to diminish the genre, which is always at its most thought-provoking when the interstellar enemy looks exactly like us: the aliens in the Alien movies merely scare you, but the Cylons make you start counting your children. And if one of the aims of the average SF show was to attract an audience dumb enough to dress up as the characters, well, remember that one of the results was Galaxy Quest, a media-wise creation in the same league with This Is Spinal Tap and Team America. Alas, there is no room left to remember everything, and my own time as a wise man, if I ever was one, is nearly done.

Wise men everywhere, all over the galaxy, and far into the future! Will the wise women ever get their chance? But of course they will, and be wiser than us. As my image-soaked brain prepares for shutdown, of that much it can be certain: the television output of the Western nations might not be able to ensure, all on its own, that justice for women is secured, but it has already ensured that justice for women is encouraged and exemplified. The government of a free country could no longer get away with force-feeding suffragettes even if it wished to; public opinion, which is at least partly formed by television, wouldn’t allow it; and anyway, free women have the vote. Protected against the worst of what men could do to them, women are at liberty to discuss what is done to them by nature. The TV shows are helping with that discussion all the time. When Alicia chooses to stay at work while Candace chooses to go home and have babies, that’s a discussion; and when Hannah Horvath, preparing for the evening’s battle against the sex goddesses, defiantly addresses the bathroom mirror (“The worst things you say are better than the best things they say”), that’s a discussion squared, all taking place within the mind of one brilliant young woman. I never expected to see women get so far in my time. On screen, they are increasingly in good hands: their own. Lucille Ball started all that by making sure that she owned the sell-on rights to I Love Lucy; but it’s still been a long slog, and Meryl Streep is only one of the many bright show business women who very properly remind us that it isn’t over yet. But women, on screen at least, are a long way toward achieving a fair shake; and to the extent that they have not achieved it, they more and more have the chance of getting paid to say why. I just hope they find time to remember that some men were their friends: and that out there over the horizon, in the world that isn’t free, there are still millions of men who sincerely think that the proper destiny of women who want to talk about these matters is to be burned alive or stoned to death, and preferably both at once.

But I wouldn’t want to scare my ten-year-old granddaughter by telling her that. I’m busy enough telling her that there are some scenes in Friends that are too old for her. She has a box set of all ten seasons, and I am allowed to watch along with her as she ploughs through the whole thing yet again. She doesn’t seem even slightly fazed by the mentions of sex. I could wish that she were more bothered by the laugh track, which is, in my professional experience, a bad thing to have around even when comedy has been genuinely achieved: mechanical laughter is a false intensifier. But she seems to understand that instinctively, and brush it off. The next generation, and then the next generation after that, are always more technically sophisticated than you expect, or can well credit. My granddaughter understands how Basil Fawlty gets his laughs. When Basil instructs Manuel to hide behind the reception desk, she knows that Basil is sure to forget Manuel is there, and will later on trip over him. When we watch the sushi bar scene in Johnny English yet again, she knows that Rowan Atkinson is looking knowledgeable about Japanese food only to multiply the effect when he gets his tie caught in the conveyor belt. It is a language: the language of setup, structure, development, and fulfillment. It is one of the languages of imagination. She speaks it already. I took a long time to learn it, and soon I will speak it no more. But it will go on being spoken for as long as all these marvelous people are free to create. What a festival they have given us, and how hard it is to leave. I wish I knew a way to thank them all at once. Perhaps this little book might be a start.