Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Substance of "The Wire"

Television has been going through a renaissance of sorts the last few years. There are some genuinely engrossing shows coming out every year, though some of them don’t make it through more than a few seasons (R.I.P. Arrested Development). I’m not a television critic -- though I do tend to criticize television – but I would wager to say that the last few years have been some of the most creative in at least a decade.

The course of events that led to this renaissance is beyond my scope, but I can submit a few guesses. One guess is that due to the success of so-called reality television, networks have many incentives to push the envelope with their programming. They can sink the money they save with reality programming into more creative projects. Or, perhaps more likely, they can be more selective with their programming because they can cheaply replace failures with new, cheaper reality fare. Or maybe they just choose to fill their timeslots with boring-reality-crap-tv rather than good-ol’-fashioned regular boring-crap tv.

In any case, an unforeseen development in television that contributed to its current renaissance is the critical success of HBO’s original programming. It's common knowledge that HBO is well-regarded for their original shows. “The Sopranos,” their flagship original drama, has won all sorts of awards for it's all-inclusive, artistic, pop cultural kitchen sink approach to television and likewise “Six Feet Under” -- though, I’m not sure why – I haven’t watched much of it myself. Let’s just say it got pretty steady critical acclaim.

HBO had pretty good timing in their foray into original programming -- which isn’t to say that their shows aren’t good, because they are -- but circumstance in the form of the reality TV boom, helped put the radar on HBO because, frankly, there wasn’t much out there in the form of really good television, reality or otherwise. Also, HBO is free from the broadcast dogma that tends to affect, in one way or another, the final product of a network or general cable television show. HBO also tends to completely ignore trends – that is, other than it’s own. In fact, HBO is usually considered a trendsetter. (It’s strange to me how, during the last few years, there is always one or two original shows on a network that are really well done, do really well and are worth watching. But, the following season, at least one other network will have a show eerily similar in many different ways to said show. Originality pays off, you see, and so these lesser, knock-off shows tend to be entirely unremarkable.):

Anyway, I've been watching HBO's “The Wire” on DVD lately and I was struck by a strange notion the other day that made me re-think the difference between network and general cable television and pay-able television on a more critical level. For those of you who don’t know, “The Wire” is a gritty, realist police drama set in the middle of the drug trade in Baltimore. It lacks an HBO “style”; i.e. the supposed pop-culture referential genius of “The Sopranos,” the foul-mouthed Shakespearean prose of “Deadwood,” and the ironic dark humor of “Six Feet Under,” but it’s story-lines are just as compelling as any of the above, if not more so. I guess you could say the style of “The Wire” is it’s gritty realism, or lack of style, which is what struck me. In my feeble mind, “The Wire” is a significant artistic achievement in the notoriously artless medium of television. But – and here’s the rub – there’s nothing overtly artistic about it, comparatively speaking.

Now, the creators of the show, along with some of its admirers, may not agree with me. But hear me out: The Wire’s artistic achievement is its gritty realism.* I think most any of the show’s fans would agree with me on that. Now my question is: why has television become such that a relatively straight-forward “realistic” show is considered artistic? (The “is” is italicized on Microsoft word, which, for some reason, is not an option on the blog editor. I just want to make sure that people know there is emphasis on “is”. – K)

If you flip through the channels, you will see flashier programs with snappier dialogue, hipper music and a defter editorial slight-of-hand than ‘The Wire.’ However, you will not see such a confident commitment to realism -- quality realism. CSI is by no means un-artistic, but I personally don’t believe that show and I certainly don’t believe in that show. It’s too flashy. The storylines are too character-driven. I mean, come on, who wants to kidnap a crime scene investigator and hold them hostage? It’s too “on the nose” to use industry parlance.

“The Wire,” however, is so “on the nose” that it’s not even close to “on the nose”. By that, I mean it’s so artless that it’s now artistic again by comparison. There’s too much filler bullshit in most network television. Much of the plot exposition is tangential and sensationalistic – almost to the point of being off-story. Consider “Lost,” which I think to be one of the greatest television shows of all time (a subject that I intend to write about at some point). But this whole season has felt like a stall tactic, which is something the “Lost” creators have done to varying degrees and with varying success in the past. In “Lost,” the story will often progress to a point where it is revealed that other previous plot progressions or story points are rendered invalid or incorrect by virtue of this new exposition. This is genius in a way, but a complete and utter sham in another. And, yeah, I get it a certain amount of regressive trickery is required for the success of the show. Otherwise the point of “Lost” would be lost -- hehe. But, nonetheless, it’s growing increasingly aggravating and seemingly unnecessary as the show progresses, particularly in the current season. Ultimately, these devices are reduced to what is oft referred to as “style,” which is sometimes a more positive way of saying “gimmickry.”

What I’m driving at is that at some point “popular” television became so artistically rich, so richly artistic, that it neutered itself. Seeing what people refer to as “MTV-style editing” or gimmick-laden, fast-paced, storytelling is no longer jarring or noteworthy. It is expected, maybe even required for your typical television show. Meanwhile, straight story telling and a noticeable lack of style is laudable for the emphasis of substance over style, or lack thereof.

Like “Lost,” “The Wire’s” plots are both character and story-driven, but lack the gimmickry that makes “Lost” so appealing…and so frustrating. And like most, or maybe even all of HBO’s shows, there is a strong serial plot thread present in “The Wire,” coupled with some episodic plots and some running storylines that are usually resolved within the span of a few episodes. If you’re a patient and observant viewer, you will relish seeing seemingly inconsequential moments from previous episodes pay off later. If you’re a fucking spaz with television ADD, then you won’t.

So it seems that art has come full circle in the pop culture milieu: the abundance of style has saturated so many mediums that style has become commonplace, artless. While substance and conformity to reality carries a high artistic currency because of the dearth of style.

This could be argued for just about any artistic medium and the reasons for it can be pure conjecture. People tend to think that independent films are more artistic because there’s less studio involvement. Maybe so. Same with music. Critics tend to appreciate indy bands more for their lack of gimmicks. Indeed it is an argument that has been made and re-made many times over, often appearing as the aforementioned substance versus style or the art versus commerce debate.

But it seems a strange phenomenon – this art paradox in television – because television is supposed to be a notoriously artless medium. However, most television shows are unquestionably more artistic than “The Wire,” at least at first glance. But quality, I would argue, is the greatest artistic achievement, whether this is achieved through substance or style. And “The Wire” is superior substance.


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