Yale University Press
Writing about television isn’t easy – it’s easier now because TV is better: more people are invested in shows that have our attention in a way the movies used to. It’s easier now too because of Clive James. He’s left his mark on poetry and criticism, the memoir, the TV talk show and documentary, cultural essays and monologue shows – but one of the things James was greatest at was TV criticism. His books of columns covering shows across the 1970s and early 1980s are still readable today because of his wit and wisdom.
And so here the terminally ill James watches from his bed – accompanied by family members he enjoys his favourite box-sets from this “Golden Age”. The result is a set of essays bursting with insight and humour as James discusses all of the ‘big’ shows you’d expect from The Sopranos through Game of Thrones, House of Cards, The West Wing, The Good Wife and many more.
In some cases Clive James is watching shows for the second or third time – and clearly (still) delighting in it. He’s sharp when assessing the worth and weight of these shows, saying of The Sopranos, that the reason they can quote The Godfather over and again, “without crashing the vehicle” is “because they’re in a bigger story than the one they’re quoting”.
That’s a favourite theme here for James, exploring the ways that Box-Set TV can play the slow game, or the long game in a way that cinema cannot. We know this already but to read Clive James’ thoughts on the matter is, as with his best writing and best TV criticism, like hearing it – discovering it – for the first time.
Across 220 pages James offers a diary of sorts – reminding us not just of some great television shows from across the last decade but reminding us we’re lucky, still, to have one of the world’s sharpest minds alive and writing, watching and thinking and fighting.
The man is a treasure, a towering giant of letters. And Play All – his Bingewatcher’s Notebook – is part of a rush of ‘last’ books that are as good as anything he’s published.