Son of The Wire

Matt Yglesias says:

What’s really depressing to me about the current TV landscape isn’t so much that we haven’t seen another Wire-quality show as it is that we haven’t even seen a serious effort to produce another show that’d be as good. The aesthetic message of the The Wire is that it’s possible to create TV shows with much higher aspirations than what you typically see—long, densely structured plot arcs with sprawling casts of characters that allow you to go beyond what’s possible in movies. But the business message is that being near-universally celebrated as the best TV show doesn’t bring with it any particular financial rewards.

Consequently, if you watch Dexter or True Blood you don’t say to yourself “this is every bit is ambitious as The Wire but doesn’t quite hit the mark.” Instead, you’re looking at shows that have constrained their ambitions.

To some extent, this complaint rings true. Shows like Dexter and True Blood borrow the superficial appeal of gritty cable dramas – the sex, the drugs, the gory violence – and dumb down/sex up the premise for a broader, less discerning audience.  A series about sex-crazed vampires or a charming serial killer simply isn’t built for deep social commentary.

But the scope and ambition of other reasonably successful cable dramas like Mad Men and Big Love clearly owe a lot to The Wire’s example, even if they haven’t achieved comparable levels of critical acclaim. Big Love is a surprisingly rich look at family life through the lens of Mormon polygamists. Despite the occasional bout of ham-handedness, the drama of Mad Men owes a lot to conflict over identity and cultural change. That neither show has matched The Wire’s track record with critics isn’t evidence of a lack of ambition. It’s a testament to The Wire’s singular awesomeness.

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6 thoughts on “Son of The Wire

  1. Also there’s a risk/reward calculus going on too. If you try to make the Wire and you miss you have pretty much a crap show noone will watch. If you aim for lower denominators you have better odds of collecting a tolerable less discerning audience.

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  2. No one ever created anything great by starting with the stated aim, “I’m setting out to create something as great as _______.” Art has to succeed, to whatever extent it can, on its own terms.

    Not to mention the simple fallacy of expecting that another great television show be produced in immediate succession to a just-concluded great television show. If there were always a “great” show on television, how great would any of those shows really be, by definition? How often do we expect greatness to come around? It can’t be too often beyond a certain point, or else the concept just dissolves in your hand.

    Ah, decline…

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  3. I think that the novelty of a writer going where the story takes him or her (as opposed to a writer saying “I WANT TO MAKE THIS PARTICULAR POINT!”) is something that does not happen anywhere near enough.

    Steven King put it something like this (and I’m going to slaughter what he said):
    There are two experiences I have when I write. One is building something. The other is excavating something. Building something is a chore. Excavating something is exciting.

    Yeah, I slaughtered that. The point was that when the writer goes where the story and characters take him, it’s far more interesting and exciting for him than when he goes from A, to B, to C.

    I can’t help but wonder whether that excitement wouldn’t carry over into the finished work for the reader as well.

    Another example would be Joss Whedon’s writing on Firefly. I believe that Whedon has admitted to being a pinko in his personal life… but when he was writing the story for Firefly, he couldn’t get away from the Libertarian thing. He went where the story and the characters took him and it resulted in surprisingly good television.

    From what I’ve pieced together from folks talking about it, I reckon The Wire is the same way.

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  4. Also – it’s really comparing apples and oranges.

    Mad Men, Dexter, and Big Love are shows about humanity and human interaction, The Wire was about how humanity is affected by huge institutions. Necessarily, the former is more intimate, smaller in scope, but delves much more deeply into character.

    So, for instance, to compare Dexter to The Wire, structurally, I think is a mistake. That it’s not sprawling in terms of scope isn’t terrible if you think about how it explores (self)identity and human interactions. Sure, it could do both. But it’s ambition is different, not less than.

    What is striking to me about Dexter is how Dexter Morgan is really an unreliable narrator, someone who is meant to be viewed with skepticism (if warmly or sympathetically). It may be the finest show with an unreliable narrator. That’s no small feat.

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  5. I always thought the Wire was a tier below Sopranos and Breaking Bad, but above pulp shows like Dexter and House. I watched the whole series, but it always felt kind of forced to me – it never felt like they just let these characters go in the world they set up.

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