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Our love affair with the box set... how Walter White and Tony Soprano conquered the television

Australian wit Clive James has focused his eye on the binge-watchingTV phenomenon, and given us a hugely entertaining critique, writes Hilary A White

Published 20/08/2016

Grossly overrated: Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad
Grossly overrated: Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad

The water-cooler moments never went away, they just intensified. For my parents' generation, JR and his shooting in Dallas was the TV moment that gripped a whole generation across the western world and indeed beyond.

For this current HBO generation, such axial scenes are now a weekly occurrence to be muttered feverishly over in the office on a Tuesday morning. Remember how the abrupt farewell of The Sopranos was debated? Heck, Game of Thrones has built a career out of periodically gunning down its various JRs.

For Clive James, the Australian writer, poet, wit and all-round linguistic polymath, the advent of the box set is a thing worthy of his sharp critical muscle, a skill that 30-something published titles and one leukaemia diagnosis later, has not been dulled one jot.

James was told the bad news in 2010 that he had a "polite but insidious" form of the cancer and was put on a course of Ibrutinib as part of his treatment (typically, he disarms the seriousness of the situation by likening the chemo drug's name to that of "the hero of one of those post-Conan movies starring some sack of sculpted tofu who will never be Arnold Schwarzenegger"). It birthed a rush of productivity in him - a book a year (poetry or non-fiction) has appeared since.

It also meant there was now rest time on the Cambridge resident's hands. And besides, modern technology had granted humanity the "play all" function, something undreamt of in those Dallas days. "Binge" is an anagram of "being", he urges us to consider. The practice of knocking off four or five episodes of The Wire is now an option for those "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".

There is much to discuss, as far as the award-winning Observer TV critic (1972-1982) is concerned. Shows such as The West Wing, Mad Men, Breaking Bad or The Good Wife have made a contribution to popular culture and, as all drama should, say much about us, good or bad.

James makes a strong argument for the box set TV show's significance in this regard, and uses that incredible knack of his to stir in references both high-brow and low without breaking a sweat.

With fleet-footed alacrity, James depicts Tony Soprano as a "magnetic mountain, pulling toward him all legends of haunted loneliness and seismic inner violence" before convincingly filing James Gandolfini's mob boss in alongside Notre Dame's Hunchback, Augustus in I, Claudius, Jay Gatsby and Holden Caulfield. He marvels at Tony's refusal to do in bothersome sister Janice despite the headaches she gives him (and us), riffing away cheerily on the nature of power, omnipotence and audience expectation ("So there she stays, making our hearts sink from week to week. And we stay too: eloquent testimony to the show's psychological grip").

The television drama series, we're reminded, has time and space to puncture the core of the human condition. But in shows such as The Sopranos and Game of Thrones (the latter James bought into wholesale after a period of resistance), "an ugly truth outranks a pretty image". Darlings can be killed off, especially if they appear to be a totemic protagonist, in the attainment of "a sense of complex reality".

Nothing does this so ruthlessly as George RR Martin's operatic political fantasy. Its dragons and zombies are its least attractive commodities, James rightly argues; it is in small corridor exchanges or acts of stealthy treachery - or similar moments in any Band of Brothers or Battlestar Galactica - that a long-form TV serial ground rule is seen: "the range of emotional effect trumps spectacle".

James is no gushing cheerleader, however. Having been around in the very epoch, he has a few bones to pick with Matthew Weiner's voyeuristic ad-agency soap Mad Men in a chapter mischievously titled 'The Way We Weren't'. Its depiction of the era, he brilliantly scolds, is "much more clear cut than it actually was", selling us an illusion of "a past when even the smartest people weren't quite as smart as us".

As for the grossly overrated Breaking Bad, James dryly laments that "nobody blew away Jesse Pinkman before my patience was exhausted".

If it is through the prism of these shows that we silently pore over our own lives from the couch, then one has to forgive James, 76 years old and performing his final act, for gazing surreptitiously into his own navel. His perky discourse on the inner struggles of "principal elders" and men of influence such as Soprano, Tywin Lannister and Stringer Bell, each surveying shaky kingdoms and wondering how much control they truly wield, carries tinges of struck nerves in James, who did not think he'd be alive this long after diagnosis.

Pondering The Wire, he projects that David Simon's TV landmark convinces you that the phantasmagoria "is real and inevitable, and that the major characters are aspects of your own personality. I have no trouble seeing myself as Idris Elba".

As ever, he's also unashamed in his appreciation of the female form, something which got him into trouble over the years. He sings about Joan Holloway's "sumptuous behind" and refers to Queen Cersei as combining "shapely grace with limitless evil in just the right mixture to scare a man to death while rendering him helpless with desire".

James is simply folding in a composite element that the showrunners intended to stand out, and he devotes enough time to championing the rise of female talent both behind and in front of the lens to dampen the comically lustful smirks.

If this is to be James' swansong - and pray it is not - the only spoiler alert worth mentioning here is that Play All will be a reminder of what the world will be deprived of once the sword of respite falls from Ibrutinib's tofu-like hand.

This snug body of writings will enrich your appreciation of TV drama's big hitters, and help elevate discussion on them to a level beyond the pub chat.

It helps that it is often as entertaining and compulsorily viewed as the very shows themselves.

Belfast Telegraph

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