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.