Books: Play All — Title Sequence |
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Title Sequence

IT SEEMS AN AGE AGO NOW, and it was. Between 1972 and 1982 I wrote a regular weekly column about television for the London Observer, and by the end of my stint I preened myself as being fairly clued up on the subject. I signed off with a confident prediction that although the American production centers, having fed their shows to the networks, might go on picking up secondary earnings by flooding the world with stuff priced low because it had already made a profit in the home market, the droll sarcasm of the desk sergeant Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) in Hill Street Blues would be about as clever as their effort would ever get. Seriousness, sophistication, and the thrill of creativity could be supplied only by the older, wiser, more mature nations. For a couple of decades it looked as if I might be right, and then the American cable channels, arising out of nowhere, suddenly outflanked the networks, which, in their turn, were obliged to raise their game. American shows for export increased their status from merely ubiquitous to unbeatably attractive, and then the advent of the box set dramas changed the game completely, to the extent that the old world had to start competing or be left out.

But to compete was hard: the American product was so good. This unexpected upsurge was a replay, in the form of art, of what the Americans had done in World War II, for which, at the beginning, they had very little military equipment, and by the end, after only a few short years, they were building a new aircraft carrier every fortnight and had developed the B-29 pressurized high-altitude bomber, not to mention the atomic bomb. None of that had been predictable either, but the thought did not console me when, at the millennium, I looked back on my confident pronouncements of the early 1980s and lashed myself for having so completely failed to guess what might happen to the American television output later on. It was a punishing example of what ought to be a critical rule: if you can’t quell your urge to make predictions, don’t make them about the future.

As I begin composing this short treatise about binge-watching and the general cultural importance of the box set TV show, I have just watched, for the third time, the episode of The Good Wife in which Will (spoiler alert!) solves the ethical problems arising from his love affair with Alicia by getting himself shot. I forbear from specifying whether his wound is fatal. I merely say that he ends up feeling even more wiped out than I do. Since my polite but insidious form of leukemia was diagnosed in early 2010, it has been more often dormant than not. Early on, a programme of chemo sent it into remission for nobody knew how long; perhaps months, perhaps more. The mystery span of time turned out to be a full five years, during which the doctors worked with some success on subsidiary problems in my chest and my immune system, and I was able to function professionally almost as well as President Bartlet in The West Wing, whose undeclared disease did not inhibit him in his capacity to bomb the Middle East, outfox Chinese diplomats, or deal with the frightening facial mobility of Stockard Channing in a fit of anger. But not long ago my main event came back, to be faced by a medical opponent that might not have existed had it been smart enough to come back earlier. Now it is being held in check by a powerful new chemo drug called Ibrutinib. The drug’s muscular name (“I, Brutinib. You, Olanzapine”) sounds like the hero of one of those post-Conan movies starring some stack of sculpted tofu who will never be Arnold Schwarzenegger. But you won’t find me disrespecting the package when the contents have such an impact. Saved from the unnerving blood-count plunge which set in when my lurking ailment came out of remission, I’m back to having time to burn. Though I haven’t really got a chance, I haven’t got an end date either. I’m not off the hook, but the hook is holding me upright; and it doesn’t even hurt, which makes me a lot luckier than some of the people I see at the hospital.

In the five years before the latest crisis, I used up a lot of my blessed supply of extra time by reading. When Yale kindly asked me to write a little book about what I had been reading lately, I could barely fit what I had to say into the space allowed. There were always more books getting into my house, and readers of Latest Readings might easily have got the idea that reading books was all that I was doing with my enforced leisure. But I was also viewing, and I mean viewing everything. 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, but I could only reply that it was a duplex need buried deep in my neural network. Even in my weakness, my age-old, oil-burning TV and DVD habit (which had once been a VHS habit, but the dealers re-upped with some great new stuff) had not grown less. But the advent of the critically credentialed TV epic, niftily slotted into a folding sleeve, amplified a long-term addiction into a form of brain-scrambling suicide, because I wasn’t just watching the new and often wonderful box sets, I was also continuing to watch, on the sludge channels, multiple rescreenings of the kind of old and not at all wonderful James Bond movie in which Roger Moore wears a flared safari suit and emits quips in close-up that achieve the difficult feat of making you remember Sean Connery’s similar epigrams as rivaling the table talk of Oscar Wilde. For honesty’s sake, if I was going to give an account of how I dealt with the new, high-end product, I would have to place my response in the context of the established brain patterns of someone who still felt compelled to switch on yet another screening of Salt and wait to see whether Angelina, when jumping from truck to truck through a blizzard of gunfire, might this time miss her mobile aiming-point and smack the speeding concrete highway with her improbably lush lips.

Once again I had more to say, going in, than the book could possibly hold. What to call it? Latest Viewings sounded too self-referential. My younger daughter Lucinda, whose key role in this enterprise will emerge in the telling, wanted me to call it Band of Thrones, thereby conflating the titles of the two box sets that could be thought of as bookends for our total viewing experience stretched over several years. Yes, we were in it together, initially in fair moderation with The Sopranos and The West Wing, and then, when the true, raging binge passion had set in, from our second viewing of Band of Brothers all the way through to the fifth season of Game of Thrones. We jumped together on the night before D-Day and we defended the Wall together against armies of tediously repellent CGI White Walker zombies. Indeed we had been in it together—the entire family had—since The Sopranos and The West Wing had introduced us all to the dizzy new pleasure of watching more than one episode of the same show in a single evening.

But surely three episodes was the maximum possible. Serious people had to retire for the night. It was Lucinda and I who pushed it all the way to four and even five; and now, every Saturday in the tiny parlor of my house of books, we binge-watch at that heady rate. Together, we may well be the only people in the world who have ever watched five episodes of The Following in succession without succumbing to catatonia. Would Kevin Bacon ever meet a character who was not a serial killer? That question kept us awake instead of putting us to sleep. How you can do that much watching without using up the universe is a question we will get to later. For now, enough to say that From the Bada Bing to King’s Landing seemed like a possible title: a bit entre nous, perhaps, a bit dans, but it could be supplemented by an academically respectable subtitle: A Study in the Imperialistic Accumulation of Mythical Milieux. After all, this is a serious cultural subject.

Well no, perhaps it isn’t, but it’s still vital: the new mythology gets into everything, and the first thing it gets into is the old mythology. At my writing desk, after a lifetime of failing to engage with Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, I at last engaged with it, and it struck me that the fair Duessa, the shape-changing femme fatale who causes so much trouble for the Red Cross Knight, has affinities with Melisandre, the scarlet woman in Game of Thrones who causes so much trouble for Stannis Baratheon among others. But when you think about it, this is a strange thought to be struck with. 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. In view of this possibility, it becomes a positive likelihood that for the next generation they will be the only frame of reference. It’s a new, pervasive, and irresistible vocabulary of the imagination. Familiar with it, one gets caught up in conversations in which properties of screen stories have the common currency once held by stories from the page. In Renaissance times the bright young people knew what they were talking about when they made glancing references to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Now the bright young people, although they are perhaps already turning into the bright early-middle-aged people, know what they are talking about when they say that two of their friends are like Josh Lyman and Donna Moss, or that another friend is a Zoe Barnes in the making, and could end up getting pushed under a train.

Even in the relative isolation imposed on me by my bad health, I have been unable to help noticing that any water-cooler conversation about the screen stories tends to be at least as learned, allusive, and interesting as any critical analysis on the page. And as the television age has developed all over the world, so this critical language has increased its scope, providing a far more successful lingua franca than was ever the case with Esperanto. Only about a million of the earth’s human inhabitants at any given time can read a page of anything in Esperanto. Yet we learn from the novels of Ahdaf Soueif that just before Egypt went to war with Israel in 1973, the smart set in Cairo were watching ancient reruns of Peyton Place on TV. When I was filming in India in 1995, the Bombay movers and shakers were all referring to the latest episodes of The Bold and the Beautiful, and they presumed that I shared their familiarity with that show’s intricacies. In fact, I hadn’t seen anything of that show in several years, but even as I dredged my memory, I was reaching the conclusion, surely correct, that the secret of American cultural imperialism’s success lay exactly in this globally recognizable frame of reference, a cultural paste that spread straight from the fridge, like soft butter. Once it had penetrated behind the iron curtain, the viewers didn’t have to understand the economics of capitalism to gauge the emblematic significance of Sue Ellen Ewing in Dallas. All they had to do was take a look at the gleam of her lip gloss as it wobbled in space while she worked her trick of mouthing a silent secondary line of dialogue to accompany the first. All they had to see was J.R.’s car, or even just his hat.

Not to mention his teeth: as the marvelous Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakuli? tells us in her book Café Europa, Western teeth on their own would have been enough to bring down the Wall. Western TV never needed to spell a message out: it was all message, and still is. (When those irascible imams and mullahs said we just want your TV sets, we don’t want your programmes, they meant we don’t want any of your programmes, because there are none of them that might not feature a woman driving a car unpunished, or having her hand shaken by a man.) By now, the language in which we discuss Western TV penetrates the image all the way to the wallpaper. This book, I can already tell, will be written in just such an allusive language. I don’t mean that serious students of this new Golden Age of Television (I place the capital letters to flag my suspicion that our acceptance of the term might need to be questioned once the euphoria dies down) are wasting their time. Indeed they have made vital contributions already. Brett Martin’s book Difficult Men, which gives us the background to the big shows and the big show-runners (a handy term for the person in charge, especially when she is a woman), is a good shot at outlining the historical framework of the box set movement, even if, with its emphasis on the cable output, it pays too little attention to Aaron Sorkin’s network breakthrough with The West Wing. And out there in Australia, my compatriot James McNamara, by so ably analyzing the wave of American achievement in his long article “The Golden Age of Television?” has already made a global contribution to cultural analysis. All he needs to do now is to reframe the article as a book, adding a couple of chapters to show why the Australian shows Underbelly (a scare fest about criminals) and Rake (a laugh riot about lawyers) ought to be in the canon. The reason is simple: they’re gripping, and that always has to be the first consideration. Without that, complication and sophistication count for nothing, or else you’d actually be enjoying the later novels of Henry James.

There will always be formal scholarly work to be done. But it will be done best if contact is not lost with the tone of common speech in which habitual consumers discuss the product; a tone not all that far from the voluble congeniality with which they pass the popcorn. Binge-watching is a night out, even when you spend the whole day in. It’s a way of being. (As Sartre unaccountably failed to note in his book Being and Nothingness, “binge” and “being” are anagrams of each other.) We begin to esteem this way of being at its true worth when we realize that the creators of the brain food that we are wolfing down are at least as involved in it, at the level of imagination, as we are ourselves. From Homer until now, and onward to wherever the creaking fleet of Battlestar Galactica will go in the future, there never was, and never will be, a successful entertainment fueled by pure cynicism. Even the people who once made the final, foundering episodes of The Love Boat had to reach into the depths of their well of feeling. They just didn’t have to reach very far. And when we, alive now in this amazing era of creativity, click on Play All and settle back to watch every season of The Wire all over again, we should try to find a moment, in the midst of such complete absorption, to reflect that the imagined world being revealed to us for our delight really is an astounding and yet necessary achievement, even though we will always feel that we need an excuse for doing nothing else except watch it. We are well occupied. We are taking a long view.

Taking that long view, we should soon realize that we have been saved. The rack of box sets has provided the antidote for two kinds of disappointment. The long-form TV series gives us reason to take heart when we see the commitment to dramatic fiction of the terrestrial broadcasters shriveling under the pressure of competition from the semicreative phenomenon which has somehow managed to bless itself with the misleading name of reality television. To use the term “semicreative” is, in most cases, putting it a bit high, but it has to be admitted that a reality format takes quite a lot of thinking up.

Sometimes the thinking is inspired, and a British show like Big Brother or I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here comes lurching and belching into existence, dauntingly well equipped to leave a great broadcasting system looking crippled by its own gentility. At other times, all you get is something like the British show Jump, in which minor celebrities were equipped with skis and goaded into jumping off the end of a very short ramp, to the astonishment of nobody who was watching, and very soon nobody was. Either way, hit or miss, the period of creativity lasts only as far as the moment when the format is held to be established. After that, nothing happens on the mental level except accountancy. The great appeal of such stuff to the more soulless brand of television executive—not necessarily brainless, but always morally obtuse—is that it costs next to nothing. The disadvantage is that intelligent viewers would rather watch almost anything else. In Britain, the main channels still come up with the occasional stretch of must-see fiction like Downton Abbey (i.e. the kind of period piece that the Americans are flatteringly pleased to import under the general title of Masterpiece Theatre), and there is always yet another show about a gifted but rebellious middle-ranking policeman banished to a provincial seaside town who redeems his reputation by solving the sort of murder case in which everyone in the district is a suspect. (When an actor famous for playing Dr. Who was cast as the middle-ranking policeman, he grew a weird half-beard to prove that he was serious, thereby becoming, I thought, the only weirdly half-bearded middle-ranking policeman in England. I thought he looked like D. H. Lawrence after an unsuccessful night with Frieda, but one of my female advisers assures me that I am underestimating both the prevalence and the attractiveness of the weird half-beard.) Now that Inspector Morse is dead, there is always a show centered on the young Morse, or on his assistant Lewis, or on the young Lewis, or on Lewis’s assistant Hathaway. (One day there will be a show about Hathaway’s assistant when young.) The carved limestone Oxford settings look delectable, but in time they can make you long to watch David Caruso standing sideways against the glittering vista in CSI Miami and taking off his dark glasses before putting them on again: not normally something that an intelligent viewer longs for.

But regular viewers can be excused for finding that the pickings have grown thin. If they go out to the movies, however, they meet the second kind of disappointment, because most of the new movies are blockbusters scaled up from Marvel comics or video games: source material in which young people are reputedly interested. Older people usually aren’t, so back they limp to the television set, having invested in some form of software that gives them multiple channels. Superficially this looks like the answer. Even the cheapest package will have half a dozen channels full of everything in the CSI franchise, whether set in Las Vegas, Miami, or New York. (There is a capital joke in Entourage when the hopeless actor Johnny Drama talks of getting a part in CSI Minneapolis.) There are infinite supplies of Law and Order. They also run movies all the time, and some of the movies, even though made quite recently, are of the old type in which, if the white hats fought the black hats, the mayhem was confined within the limit of physical likelihood. But increasingly all the movies that screen on the sludge channels look as if they were designed to be there. When battle is joined, martial arts are employed. And they are not just the routinely astonishing martial arts of the Kung Fu and Bruce Lee type. They are magic martial arts. Actors, usually devoid of other characteristics, have the ability to rise twisting into the air and somersault over the heads of their opponents. You will see even big-name actors such as Keanu Reeves doing this. Once I had seen him doing it a few times, I never wanted to see him doing anything. And Keanu in the Matrix movies is at the top of the list of somersaulting heroes, along with Hugh Jackman in the X-Men movies. Milla Jovovich, the most beautiful face in creation, is reduced to the status of a cartoon as she somersaults through a cavalcade of robotized assailants: she wields a blade that shatters them like glass. Two blades. And a gun.

What eyes, but what idiocy. Further down the list, with less of the aerial maneuvering but even more reliance on the mad delusion that feet and bare hands can defy weapons, you get Jean-Claude Van Damme. Determined students are often ready to insist that a cliché meathead hero is sometimes in a good movie, and in Jean-Claude’s case this is sometimes almost true: Timecop isn’t bad. And even Jason Statham, whose usual fate is to spend half the movie employing his kick-boxing skills to wipe out one of those circular, inward-facing clusters of heavies who kindly make the mistake of throwing their guns away and attacking him one at a time, is possibly the right guy to star in The Bank Job, where you can just about imagine how his effortful cockney accent might charm the expensive pants off Saffron Burrows. Steven Seagal, his brow creased with the effort of wondering how he came to put on weight despite his diet of Asian health food, can still frighten a whole platoon of the Yakuza by the way he moves toward them with confident slowness, slowly advancing one pudgy hand in front of the other. But by the time you get down to Vin Diesel, you have to be the kind of viewer who gets an automatic reflex thrill out of watching a muscleman in a vest doing nothing except somersault to evade bullets, kick people in the head, and drive a car. You have to be a zombie: although let’s not even get into the topic of zombies and vampires, who not only populate the big screen in the majority of all movies made for it but also populate those movies that never get as far as the big screen, and instead invade the small one with shambling armies of the undead and chorus lines of otherwise pretty actors of both main genders made portentous with heavy eye makeup, thus to convey the strain of combining procreative passion with a thirst for blood. If only Buffy could have slain them all.

People who worry about the effect of all this junk on the next generation probably aren’t worried enough about themselves. From where I’m sitting, screen trash becomes an extinction event. See enough somersaulting actors and you’ll have the sort of dreams that make you fall out of bed. In recent years, during this thematic collapse and ethical putrefaction of the film industry, there would have been little to save us from cortical decay if not for the providential rise of the box set. If you ever doubt the value of watching the buildup to a mealtime massacre in Game of Thrones, think of that sequence in The Return of the King that has Orlando Bloom bringing down the Mumakil, one of those mythical horned beasts which have been eating up the blue-screen sequences ever since The Empire Strikes Back. Orlando’s victory over a digital effect took bundles of money and a factory full of the kind of IT expertise that can morph a film star into a digital double of himself, but the Red Wedding wipeout of a bunch of real live actors in the ninth episode of the third season of Game of Thrones took thought. The essential difference between a good box set drama and a comic-book movie’s relentless catalogue of mechanized happenings is that the first thing leaves you with something to discuss, and the discussion becomes part of the experience. The second thing does all your reacting for you. The recent remake of Total Recall has immeasurably more advanced special effects than the original, but on the human level it doesn’t even have Arnie. When a movie is nothing but spectacle, it is asking us to switch off our brains: a baleful modern precept of which Leni Riefenstahl was merely the pioneer. The will triumphs.

Nevertheless, the new Golden Age of Television, supposing that it exists, can’t possibly leave Hollywood behind, and not just because Los Angeles is where most of its products come from. The show-runners and the writers, even at their most original, are drawing on a heritage. Just as, in Hollywood, there has always been an actor called Harrison Ford, so there have always been codes of allowable behavior. There was a time when screen lovers, even if they were supposed to be married, could not lie on the same bed unless the man had one foot on the floor. One of the reasons why the box set screenwriters are so determined to populate the screen with a writhing orgy is their accurate perception that liberty is being furthered: what they do now depends on their knowledge of what once could not be done. In fact, they know that kind of thing about movies and the media better than they know the world. (It might be a case of critical wish fulfillment to suppose that Martin Scorsese got his knowledge of mean-streets violence from spending his childhood with the bad boys: it’s much more likely that his strict mother told him to stay away from them, and that he got most of his frame of reference from books and the movies.) The creative teams of today are not really abandoning the idea of codes of acceptability; but they do modify them, and in the box sets they are usually modifying them toward a humane and thoughtful maturity, thereby releasing the intelligent appreciation of the facts of life that generations of creative people were previously compelled to disguise. (Californication is essentially a sex fantasy from the mind of Cecil B. DeMille that arrives on screen without having to go by way of Babylon or ancient Rome.) The actors now may curse much more on screen, but they are even less likely than they once were to say anything provocative to those professing to be outraged by transgressions in the direction of sexism, racism, or any other patrol areas of political correctness. In fact 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. You could write a whole thesis about how modern ideological sensitivities rewrite the past. It goes without saying that you must tread carefully if you want to republish The Nigger of the Narcissus under its original title, even though a great writer wrote it. But now that anybody who once might have been called black has to be called an African American (unless, like Idris Elba in The Wire, he was born in Hackney and raised in East Ham), it becomes problematic to refer, without trigger warnings, to an innocent old movie that happened to have the word “black” in its title. I thought for a while of writing a treatise about the politically inspired linguistic cleansing of the past and calling it The Beige Shield of Falworth.

But then I thought again, and decided to write this book instead. Soon the process of historical oblivion that Peter Bogdanovich was the first to warn us about—the process by which, if you tell young people about Charlton Heston’s performance as Moses, they not only haven’t heard of Moses, they haven’t heard of Charlton Heston—will extend to embrace Tony Curtis, a man whose fame, which reached to the whole world in my youth, had already waned by the time I interviewed him. Perhaps time, if left unopposed, will always Sanforize itself into some form of intelligible fiction, which we discuss with one another all the more learnedly because we don’t really understand what Putin is up to in Ukraine, or what, whatever it is, can be done about it. The names of the buttons we push in order to make this new heritage roll before our eyes are understood by everyone. We all know how to make the sane person’s decision to watch the episodes one at a time or the bingewatcher’s decision to play every episode on the disc. And there’s my title: Play All. 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. Shall I spend the better part of tomorrow afternoon making further inroads into the novels of Sir Walter Scott? Or shall I join my daughter in watching four episodes of Dexter? All right, five. Followed by a learned discussion of whether The Following might not have been a bit more plausible if Kevin Bacon’s character, instead of merely chasing serial killers, had serially killed them.