21.10.09

TV show of the decade

There's only really one answer. This one is so easy. Drumroll...

The Wire - David Simon (creator)

And is there anything more to be said? I mean, the show's towering superiority over everything else made this decade becomes evident to anyone who starts watching it. There's no real need for justifications. It is just impossible to deny.

My feelings upon completing season one remain unchanged at the end of season three. In the absence of original things to offer, I'll content myself with restating things the makers of the show have themselves emphasized. A lot of this comes from the commentaries and interviews on the season three discs, which are worth a watch.

Sidebar: No, I haven't seen the last two seasons. But even if there is a drastic falloff (and I'm assured there isn't) the achievement of the first three are enough to knock all rivals off the top spot. So I stand by my choice.

First. The Wire requires even closer attention than I first realized. The bewildering world you are thrown in, trying to make sense of it, occupies a lot of your brainpower the first time round. You end up using the overall season-spanning theme to reach some understanding of what you have been watching. Season one set up the ground rules: making close comparisons between a legitimate and a clandestine organization at odds with one other. Season two stretched out to include goings on in the port, in order to address America's betrayal of the working class. Season three pushed further into the political realm, and offered myriad plot-strands structured around the idea of reform.

But what you miss (at least, what I missed) watching the show on DVD is the way an individual episode builds its own internal patterns and symbols. In part, this is revealed through the quotes presented after the credits sequence: snatches of everyday dialogue that take on an added significance when placed at the head of the episode. The other indicator is the title of the episode, at first glance purely descriptive, but in fact offering fitting metaphors for the developments in that episode. The only example I can recall at present is the season three finale, named 'Mission Accomplished', with the epigraph '...we fight on that lie' as its banner. In the context of the episode, these two headings offer a bleak appraisal of America's War on Drugs. But they also go beyond this, linking the never-ending War on Drugs with the never-ending War on Terror. The failure to think outside the box domestically (end prohibition) is tied with the brain-dead shoot-from-the-hip reaction to 9/11. The season finale is a bad example, as it comments on the whole season (as does the season premier), but a quick glance at wikipedia shows me that all the episodes in themselves offer a rich seam of interpretation to pick apart.

Second. Not enough has been said about the show's visual achievements. The thing to note is the way it strikes a balance between realism and genre, gritty and mythic, low-key and operatic. There is no epic score, shoot-outs aren't glamourous, titty-bars aren't sexy. All the characters look real, rather than plastic. And yet those long crane shots over the corners, the sweeping pans, the slow pull-ins, the graceful lingering beats. This is no docu-style camera work. The Wire is artificial, a construct that takes real elements of Baltimore city life and puts them together to make statements the city can't make for itself. It's not fact, but fiction -- artifice -- art.

Third. We need to celebrate the subscription broadcasting business model which made The Wire possible. No commercial network would touch something so difficult and dark, and the creators knew this. It was HBO or nothing. The corporation doesn't need to worry about viewing figures, but the quality of its product. Its shows aren't dumbed down in order to be accessible, their brained up to be exclusive -- something different to the competition. Creators are given space and freedom to push the audience, rather than be pushed by it. Consumers don't always know best. Sometimes artists know better. This is why they need to be subsidized in a way that isn't always subject to the short-term, impulsive workings of the free market.

Honorable mention:
My two favourite television shows -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The West Wing -- both tailed off at the beginning of the 2000s, but I feel like too much of their identity is tied up with the 90s to qualify for the title. The Wire is, on the other hand, firmly a product of the last ten years.

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