The concept of binge-watching is nothing new to readers of this column – indeed, it was first introduced here in NEO #26, ten years ago, where it was lifted from 1990s US TV fandom. It came into its own in 2013, when Netflix’s new paradigm of dumping entire serials online on a single day encouraged even mainstream viewers to get into the habit, and in 2015, the concept was hailed as the word of the year by the Collins English Dictionary.
I first noticed binge-watching implicit in the style of Gantz, an anime series with four-episode arcs, dumped onto late-night schedules in Japan where it seemed to be begging its audience to watch it in longer chunks. The serial format, it seemed to me, was merely a conceit. Gantz was long-form story-telling, pretending to be a TV show just to keep investors happy.
TV critic Clive James has also stumbled across the world of binge-viewing. Housebound and believing that he only had a few months to live, he kept himself busy with DVD box sets. With his life-threatening leukaemia happily in apparent remission, he has been unable to resist writing up his experience in Play All: A Binge-Watcher’s Notebook, a book-length meditation on a “new critical language” to cope with a new form of media consumption.
“I wondered briefly what Theodor Adorno would have said on the subject of American schoolgirl detectives,” he notes regrading Veronica Mars, “but after watching a few episodes I realised that I didn’t give a damn what Theodor Adorno would have said.”
There is something sweet about James’ tardy arrival at conclusions that will be familiar to almost any anime fan. Like much of his recent writing, it has an elegiac quality, as if he expects every page to be his last, and as he struggles to correct solecisms from his past. Spanning the rise of quality TV from The Sopranos to Game of Thrones, Play All is not a simple collection of reviews. Rather, like J. Hoberman’s similar Film After Film, it uses a number of representative works to build a unified account of a modern medium.
Sadly, James has nothing to say in this book about Japan. His snarky love of the country’s television was a defining trope of his 1980s heyday. I wished for a moment in this lovely book where he would roll his eyes like old times, offered a pained grin and say: “Meanwhile, in Japan…” Because in the era of anime box sets, I would have loved to see what he made of Gantz, or Attack on Titan, or…
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #156, 2016.