Book Review: Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook by Clive James

play all

Once upon time, conversations about TV used to be like this:

“Did you see Neighbours yesterday?”

“Yes, I saw most of it. Bouncer the dog had a dream in it…” And so on.

A few years later, it would often be more like.

“Did you see Sex and the City last night?”

“Don’t tell me about it. I’ve taped it.”

Now, it’s more like:

“I watched Santa Clarita Diet yesterday.”

“Cool. I’ve not seen that. Or heard of it actually. Get back to me in 2020.”

For we live in the age of bingewatching. All of our viewing is laid out before us. In the 1970s, this would have meant that whole series of The Onedin Line, Upstairs Downstairs and er, Poldark would have been presented to us in one go instead of over a period of months and  years. Today, it means I’m bang up to date with some things (13 Reasons Why, Crazy Ex-Girfriend, Transparent) and miles behind on others. I’m only up to about 2013 in the story of The Good Wife, for example. A shame as Mr. James unleashes a supermassive epic spoiler about this series, without warning, early on! Be warned.

But otherwise, Clive James, once a famous TV critic before he embarked on his own TV career is the perfect man to write this book. He has always been a superb writer and has taken the opportunity created by his recent illness to bingewatch a-plenty with his family and as usual elevates this material far above the level an unknown scribe like myself has ever managed while writing for the likes of magazines like Geeky Monkey, Bingebox and DVD Monthly in the last few years.

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As usual, with such things, it’s more fun if you’ve seen the show he’s discussing for yourself. He tackles the major shows of our time: The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, The West Wing, Homeland, The Good Wife and Game of Thrones amongst others. Most controversially, he thinks Breaking Bad is very overrated. He thinks Steve Buscemi isn’t quite tough enough for Boardwalk Empire (which should be renamed Boredwalk Empire in my view. Only Buscemi’s presence and Michael Shannon’s hypnotic voice kept me watching for as long as I did). He is probably right to claim House of Cards goes off a lot once Frank Underwood becomes president (er, spoiler alert! Although surely everyone knows that?). He is also probably right about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Aaron Sorkin’s follow up to The West Wing. It probably suffered from trying to apply the same level of seriousness to a TV comedy show as Sorkin did to life in the White House. It also probably didn’t help that none of the comics on the show within a show (Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg aside) were actually very funny.

Occasionally, James shows his age. He dismisses anything with superheroes and zombies in outright. I, at forty, am only just starting to do this. He also makes it a little too obvious which actresses he does and doesn’t fancy.

But who am I to criticise? Nobody does this sort of book better than Clive James.

He is the Master.

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