Watch and read/read and watch

As well as catching up on past TV gems and unwatched DVDs, I intended in my retirement to catch up on my reading, too, but most of the books I have been carrying around with me of late have been about….TV! I’d like to mention three of them here, more in a spirit of reflection and recommendation than review (it’s a bit late for that, anyway).

All three have clearly been inspired by the most recent developments in television, especially American television, and the first two seek to create a canon of greatness as a context for the current glut of quality. As someone who was closely involved in the creation of the BFI’s TV100, which sought to identify the top British TV shows from our perspective in 1999, I can appreciate the complex methodologies involved. I can also understand why American critics have chosen this moment to appraise the past. I can’t help thinking of the closing line of Sellar and Yeatman’s classic book 1066 and all That; a 1930 parody of jingoistic school history textbooks which was required reading when I was a history student half a century ago and which ends in 1918 with the statement that America was now clearly “top nation” and History came to a full stop. Well, we did our canon at pretty much the time when Britain’s reign as TV top nation was ending and America’s beginning, so it’s not surprising they are starting to crow about it now.

IMG_0373This is certainly the case with David Bianculli’s The Platinum Age of Television (Doubleday, 2016), which seeks to place the recent upsurge in quality material in the context of the evolutionary development of programming throughout the medium’s history and, as such, becomes pretty much a history of TV programmes in selected genres. In 1992, Bianculli published a wonderful and (for me) highly welcome book called Teleliteracy (Simon and Schuster), which was an argument for taking TV seriously as art but was, essentially, defensive, whereas the new book is flat-out celebratory (often referencing the same programmes). Bianculli identifies his Platinum Age as beginning in 1999, the year of The Sopranos and The West Wing, but sees it as a culmination of a progressive process and identifies what he sees as the key milestones from the previous 50 years. Each milestone programme is the subject of a short essay and the book also features profiles of, and interviews, with key creative personnel (including Matt Groening, David Chase, Vince Gilligan, Amy Schumer, David Simon, Louis C.K. and more), whose responses about what influenced them validate the choice of milestones and create a canon of 90 titles over 18 genres. The number of genres and sub-genres is impressive, especially in comedy (including a list of 5 key “single working women sitcoms”) but factual television is largely ignored – the only factual title to make the canon, Ken Burns’ Civil War, is awkwardly included under “miniseries”! A few British titles also get in, but only in the context of US transmission (understandably).

The structure of the book makes it very easy to dip in and out of, though Bianculli’s apparent aim of making each essay and profile a potential stand-alone piece does make it seem sometimes rather repetitive if you read it cover-to-cover. As a history of (American) television, it is obviously very strong on programming, but I have always contended that there are three strands to TV history: the technical, the organisational and the editorial, each of which affects the other two. Bianculli certainly links the editorial with the organisational, explaining how the growth of subscription services unlocked the ability to deliver real quality content, but pretty much ignores the technical. For me, one of the key developments enabling the Platinum Age was the introduction of the 16:9 screen and the move to high-definition formats. A word he often uses to describe ambitious dramas is “cinematic”, though without really explaining why that is the case, as well as why so many talents in the field of visual storytelling are preferring to work in TV rather than movies. It’s partly the expanded timescales for developing stories, but it’s also the shape and quality of the image.

I very much enjoyed reading The Platinum Age of Television and I regularly visit David Bianculli’s website,tvworthwatching.com to see what he and his collaborators are recommending, as it is one of the most reliable guides to quality TV.

IMG_0367Published at almost the same time in late 2016, Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz’s TV (the Book) (Grand Central) covers much of the same ground. It is subtitled Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time”, which has the merit of making it clear that the rest of the world is excluded – I get a bit pissed off when just a handful of British and other non-US titles are included in American-dominated lists, as though that is all that is merited (don’t get me started on the Writers Guild of America list of the hundred “best written TV shows”!). Much else is excluded as well and the authors do a good job of explaining their meticulous methodology, and the reasoning behind it, upfront. In fact, the list of 100 “greatest” is confined only to drama and narrative comedy (i.e. sitcom). Not only that – miniseries are excluded also, though “one-season wonders” (which may have hoped to be renewed, but were not) are given special dispensation in the point-scoring process to be included. As a result, series of the significance of Roots or the quality of Band of Brothers don’t make the canon, while titles of considerably lesser quality and impact abound in the lower reaches, which seems rather perverse. The authors do list 20 miniseries in a separate chapter, and an impressive list it is too, which only emphasises the anomaly.

But let’s be fair – lists are always going to raise hackles and Sepinwall and Seitz are very open about the process and its limitations. And lists are fun, too – this one provides plenty of scope for some fine writing about the shows in question and in-depth critical analysis of why they matter and what makes one “better” than another. The fact that there are two critics arguing with each other as well as their audience adds to the sense of a debate well-articulated. Interestingly, despite the different scope and layout of the two books, there is only one title in the top 20 of Sepinwall and Seitz’s top 100 which is not also in Bianculli’s canon of 90, which makes for a major consensus, though there is plenty of divergence thereafter.

IMG_0366These books weigh in at almost 600 and just over 400 pages respectively. My third book is a mere 200 pages (and they are pretty small pages at that!), but contains plenty of engaging argument and memorable wit, because it is by the great Clive James. Now housebound because of severe illness, James has returned to the sort of TV criticism we enjoyed in his weekly Observer columns in the seventies. I remember staggering home under the weight of both the Observer and Sunday Times and their endless supplements, just so that I could read the TV columns by both James and Dennis Potter. James’ Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook (Yale University Press, 2016) sees him catching up with the last two decades of TV output via box sets and streaming services, so again, many of the expected titles are covered, though this time with James’ inimitable comparative references to classical literature, movies, philosophy and so on – only he would cite Nietzsche, Camus and Bubbles from The Wire in the same sentence. He also takes in Scandinavian noir, feminist comedy and much more on the way, but the highlight of the book has to be the chapter on Game of Thrones, in which he spends almost as much time listing the reasons why he should never have watched the series as those why he finds it so compulsive, concluding that its spine is “the daring of its analytical psychology”.

All three books provide plenty of commentary on things you will have seen and plenty of compelling reasons to watch things you haven’t, or maybe didn’t even realise you needed to – and, with so much available, these are the best guides. For me, the inescapable conclusion from all three is that I absolutely MUST watch The Sopranos, in full, from beginning to end.