Somewhere around the time of the second season of The Sopranos, people at dinner parties stopped gossiping about their friends’ sex lives and started talking about American television shows, later designated ‘box sets’. Nowadays, it’s all anybody ever talks about, and the quickest way to feel old or out of it is to find oneself unable to speak, in detail, about why Jeremy Piven is so brilliant as the agent in Entourage. You can watch educated people shrivel with a sense of inner defeat on realising that they don’t really know the difference between your average Twilight kid and the kind of vampire you get on True Blood. Question: was every generation as imperialistic in its interests as my own?
The HBO series is generally held to be about the writing and the acting and the brave storytelling. People got into the habit of talking about the The Sopranos as they might once have spoken about something at the Royal Court. The references in Six Feet Under, the show set in and around a Los Angeles funeral home, were pored over on the internet, and groups of people sat down with box sets of The Wire much as people used to do with the ‘War of the Roses’ cycle at the National. It was long, it was wonderful, it was difficult to make out what was being said, but it was good for you, and it stopped you from having nothing to say at dinner. I think it seemed ennobling of the arts – or seemed to confirm the notion that bad times are a gift to creativity – that HBO was producing great work during a period when America was run by complete idiots. It was, if you like, the National Theatre of America, watched by small but vocal minorities, answering back to executive failure and spiritual flatness. And Britain seemed to cotton on to these series as if they offered an alternative America, one that was more interesting, smarter, more pluralistic than either reality or movies could suggest. Some wag said of The Wire that it had only 100,000 viewers, but each of them had a column in the Guardian.
It was therefore quite natural that The Pacific, HBO’s latest series, should have been described, in Britain and elsewhere, as the television event of the year. Produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg at a cost of more than $200 million, it was filmed in pretty gruelling conditions in Australia with a cast of hundreds, aiming to capture the story of America’s war in the Pacific. Nine of the ten episodes have now been shown, and the time has arrived to say that the series is rubbish. It should have been great, and it aimed to be great, but The Pacific never really got off the air-strip at Guadalcanal. On the principle that an interesting failure is sometimes more instructive than a pointless success, you can look at The Pacific and see where ambition and technology may have bled the writing to death. Nobody is talking about this show, which could either mark a change in HBO’s fortunes, a temporary blip, or a wholesale return in our lives to reckless gossiping about who’s sleeping with whom.
When I was small I thought I’d invented the word ‘parsley’. The men in The Pacific are not exactly children, but they’re not exactly men either – they brandish their guns as if they were made of plastic – but they say ‘fuck you’ as if they’d just invented it. You might want to take that for granted, but you shouldn’t. Robert Taylor didn’t get to say ‘fuck you’ in the first American Pacific picture, Stand by for Action (1942). And neither did Anthony Quinn in Guadalcanal Diary (1943). There wasn’t a single ‘fuck you’ to be heard in the whole Pacific submarine adventure Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), directed by Robert Wise, who later directed The Sound of Music, in which there were even fewer ‘fuck you’s.There might have been a few in Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), but if so, they were in Japanese, and I’m not sure that counts. Film was timid about ‘fuck you’ in the Pacific before The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick’s wonderful poetic encapsulation of jungle heat and the ultimate ‘fuck you’ war conditions on Guadalcanal. Even Norman Mailer, much given to such usage, wasn’t allowed to say it in The Naked and the Dead, where the marines, somewhat famously, were forced by his publishers Rinehart & Co to say ‘fug you’.
The bigger problems in The Pacific began in the first episode, where it became obvious you couldn’t tell the actors apart. The three main guys were all fairly handsome American dudes with dark hair. That’s fine, until you start shooting night combat in the jungle with minimal lighting and slashing rain. Back in the days of From Here to Eternity, they knew how to make one guy fat, the other guy thin. ‘Give the guy a moustache, for crying out loud, or give him ginger hair,’ I shouted at the screen. The Japanese liked fighting at night, and I can understand the wish for accuracy. But Jesus. It destroys the scenes not knowing who’s just been shot. Band of Brothers, the series made by the same crowd as this, a series that brilliantly captured life for a company of soldiers fighting in Europe, changed our sense of what really happened on the ground. Fug, yeah. The red-haired guy was played by Damian Lewis.
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