Clive James as Latecomer, Finding Succor in Reruns

The New York Times, August 22, 2016

It's not often that an author announces his obsolescence on his very own book cover, but with "Play All," the redoubtable Clive James has found a title that neatly demarcates how late he is to the party.

Maybe it doesn't matter so much that this slim collection of critical essays is built around the experience of binge-watching shows on a DVD player, a platform that bids fair to join the VCR and the eight-track in the techno-landfill. Maybe it doesn't matter that the author treats the venerable boxed set as a recent development that requires "a new critical language" to make sense of its "onrush of creativity."

Maybe the only thing that matters is that Mr. James, who reviewed television for The Observer back in the 1970s and remains an enduring entertainment fixture in his British homeland, seems just now to be getting around to series that entered (and, in a few cases, departed) the cultural conversation years ago.

So if you were wondering what the author really thinks about "Band of Brothers" (2001) or "NYPD Blue" (1993-2005) or "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" (2006-7) or "The Wire" (2002-8)—or, hell, "Shogun" (1980)—this is the volume to slake your curiosity. If you needed someone to explain to you that Frank Underwood, the antihero of "House of Cards," owes something to Machiavelli; that "Mad Men" is "shorthand for Madison Avenue men"; that movie spectacles ask us to "switch off our brains"; and that modern television has exploded "the old idea of a single auteur," then by all means hunker down.

The rest of us will have to gather our rosebuds where we may. Recalling the amusingly unkind Mr. James who once compared Arnold Schwarzenegger to "a brown condom full of walnuts," we are liable to get the same kick from learning that Steve Buscemi's teeth are "designed for biting the head off a live chicken" and that "watching 'The Pacific' is like being shackled to the couch and forced to see 'Pearl Harbor' for a second time. It almost makes you sorry that the Japanese lost."

Recalling the Clive James who has unapologetically commuted between high and low culture, between translating Dante and hanging out at the Playboy mansion, we might enjoy seeing him refract "Boardwalk Empire" through the old master glow of Raphael and pour the nectar of Nietzsche and Camus over Bubbles, the shopping-cart philosopher from "The Wire."

But maybe now is the time to grapple with the Clive James of today: a game but seriously ill man whose "polite but insidious form of leukemia" was diagnosed six years ago. His condition is currently kept at bay through the miracles of pharmacology, and although Mr. James concedes that "I haven't really got a chance," he quickly adds, "I haven't got an end date, either."

So, with the extra time afforded him, Mr. James has been viewing everything he can get his hands on. It is, of course, possible to wish him many more years of happy viewing—on whatever platform—while insisting that he be held to the same standards as before. By that measure, the Mr. James of old would surely have thought twice before committing the phrase "screen magic" to paper and would have dialed back such fanboy gushings as "'The Sopranos' is at least three 'Godfather' movies plus 'The Magnificent Ambersons' and Abel Gance's 'Napoleon.'"

He might, too, have questioned such assertions as "There never was, and never will be, a successful entertainment fueled by pure cynicism," or "This business of continuously good writing throughout the long run of a show really began with 'The Rockford Files,'" or "There have always been funny women in real life, but on screen they were handicapped if they looked pretty, or even just normal."

To that last charge, a ghost chorus of comic goddesses rises up: Carole Lombard, Lucille Ball, Katharine Hepburn, Kay Kendall. But why disturb their slumbers? This is the same Clive James who thinks that female performers, before whining too much, should consider how much less freedom they would have on Al Jazeera.

Write all this off to the generational blinders of a 76-year-old author, and then see if you have enough indulgence left to explain the author's idolatry of Aaron Sorkin, who, in Mr. James's mind, has provided "the most elaborately eloquent dialogue since the great days of Hollywood screwball comedy in the late 1930s and early 1940s," and whose "West Wing" "reminded the world that America had intellectual capacity behind its economic muscle." Was that capacity still in question? Only, perhaps, in the precincts of Mr. James's Oxbridge worldview, where the specter of United States hegemony allows for such bizarre sentences as "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."

Cotton Mather's America, maybe. But prejudices, it seems, hang on as doggedly as critics, and critics are finally just people sitting doggedly on a couch. So it is that the most affecting moments of "Play All" come when the author is joined by his wife and daughters, all keeping the old man company as he sifts through his many hours of boxed sets. "We may well be the only people in the world," Mr. James writes, "who have ever watched five episodes of 'The Following' in succession without succumbing to catatonia."

He adds, "How you can do that much watching without using up the universe is a question we will get to later."

© Louis Bayard