Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz aren’t too proud to admit it.
In the introduction to “TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick The Greatest TV Shows of All Time” (GrandCentral, 324 pages, $19.99 paper), they admit they “always expected to be film critics.” Why? “Movies were art; TV was the vast wasteland.”
Those were the values when they were growing up.
Seitz, in fact, has become an integral part of the critical apparatus of American film, as manager of the Roger Ebert website and author of serious coffee table books about major American filmmakers – Wes Anderson and (his new one) Oliver Stone (whose new film “Snowden” opens next week).
Somehow, though, they both write that they originally “both wound up covering television in what turned out to be the best possible era – and, for multiple reasons, the best possible place. … In the late ’90’s, we are assigned to share the TV beat for the (Newark) Star-Ledger,” one of the few American newspapers to understand an impending revolution in TV quality that demanded an equivalent revolution in quality coverage.
Now consider Clive James. He wasn’t the first certifiable literary critic to find a spectacular avocation covering television. That would be the late, crazily prolific literary polymath John Leonard, who was one of the finest editors the New York Times Book Review will ever have. He fell into the job of reviewing TV for Life magazine in the early 1970s and, in one place or another, never fell out of it until he died of lung cancer in 2008.
But James – who was born in 1939, the same year as Leonard – was the television critic of the Observer from 1972 to 1982 and has been following the subject assiduously ever since, wherever he can.
In the introduction to “Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook” (Yale University Press, 200 pages, $25), James tells the remarkable tale of how he happened to write again about TV now with its “onrush of creativity coming to us in the form of box sets: a system of distribution that still strikes me as something new, even though it is clearly overtaken by systems that download material directly into the computer. By the time the book is published, the DVD might be as obsolete as the dodo.”
Not yet, thank heaven. But it hasn’t stopped James, along with the two New Jersey-forged critics, from producing two of the most enjoyable and canniest books of 2016.
James’ tale is personally remarkable. In early 2010, he was diagnosed with leukemia. The prognosis was not good. But apparently the initial round of chemo was. Remission came and lasted five full years. And then the disease returned with attendant symptoms. But then came a new drug and a new lease on a life that had long ago seemed precarious.
With irresistible bravado, he writes “I’m back to having time to burn. Though I haven’t really got a chance, I haven’t got an end date either.”
So in the period of his disease’s downswings have come books about last engagements with his two favorite subjects – books (“Latest Readings”) and television.
James isn’t merely a great literary critic and memoirist from Australia; he’s a poet and a Dante translator and in England where he lives, an all-around literary and TV presence of a British sort, an ubiquitous, omni-media intellectual.
He is now a unique fellow who admits, on receiving a box set of “Veronica Mars” for Christmas, that he “wondered briefly what (late German intellectual) Theodore Adorno would have said on the subject of American schoolgirl detective stories, but after watching a few episodes I realized I didn’t give a damn what Theodore Adorno would have said. I only wanted to see more of what Kristen Bell was doing with the title role.”
So here’s James writing about this stupendous and unprecedented TV era that started in the late ’90s – “The Sopranos,” “The West Wing,” “Game of Thrones,” “Band of Brothers,” “The Wire,” “The Newsroom,” “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” “Homeland” and “The Good Wife.”
Try this James sample. On James Gandolfini in “The Sopranos:” “From ‘Get Shorty’ you can barely remember him: He was just a failed torpedo that John Travolta threw downstairs. But in ‘The Sopranos,’ he is a magnetic mountain, pulling toward him all legends of haunted loneliness and seismic inner violence.”
Here is what has turned out to be a tragic rarity – the kind of writing about television that the best of it currently deserves. (I confess enormous pleasure in a critic like James, who has the reservations about “Mad Men” that I do.)
So too does Sepinwall and Seitz’s totally irresistible “TV (The Book)” in which the two former critical Jersey boys argue about their top 100 TV shows on a level appropriate to the subject.
They developed, God help us, a system for going through and rating them. They explain it all – all of it – quite fatiguingly, but it gives them endless material to argue about and consider in this era where television demands to be covered with everything it provides with such amazing regularity.
You’ll find all their explanations of method ignorable hooey but you’ll enjoy immensely their list of 100 best shows in prime time and their discussions of them.
I have a fundamental problem with their book as a member of the first TV generation. I’ve been writing professionally about television since 1969 but avoiding whenever possible one thing: sitcoms. I have always hated them, even as a child when I was finally allowed to stay up and watch “I Love Lucy.” I couldn’t figure out why everybody wouldn’t rather watch “Ozzie and Harriet” where Ricky Nelson’s deadpan wisecracks seemed to be the perfect model for the way younger brothers ought to act.
I’ve watched precious few sitcoms for pleasure – “Cheers,” for one, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” for another. I’ve enjoyed individual shows, and been delighted never to return the following week. Some I’ve watched because they provided the richest continuing subject prime time ever had (“All in the Family,” especially, with its two masterful lead performances. Did Jean Stapleton’s female half get her perpetual half-run from Shirley Booth in “Hazel?” She’s long gone so we’ll never know, but she was the show’s heart and soul.)
But, unlike Sepinwall and Seitz, I don’t care about sitcoms. That’s because I’ve been dipping into late-night TV since 1958. That was the place where TV was always unexpected, often genuinely adult, wildly funny and completely outside prime time’s deadly prescribed parameters.
I have no idea why I was allowed to watch late-night television regularly from Jack Paar on but I know that ever afterward, the shrunken purview and infantile artifice of TV sitcoms has bored me silly more often than not, even when it’s as brilliant as it is on, say, “The Simpsons.”
Nevertheless, these two terrific TV books are the right TV books released at the right time.