“Reinventing How We See the Wheel”
December 18th, 2009
[This is Part Six in a six-part series chronicling the television shows which most influenced my relationship with television over the past decade – for more information and an index of all currently posted items, click here.]
I started Cultural Learnings in January 2007 for two main reasons. The first was that my brother Ryan had a blog, and thus its proximity to my life made it seem like a cool thing to do. The second was that I was in a “Politics of Mass Media” course and the idea of using a blog as a way of brownnosing extra credit appealed to me. So, in the early days (which, for the sake of my pride, have largely been purged), there were posts about a myriad of subjects, as whatever struck my fancy made its way under the collective banner of Cultural Learnings.
As noted throughout these pieces, a number of factors influenced the switch to a television blog, whether it was the return of Battlestar Galactica and Lost from their respective hiatuses or the false optimism engendered by Heroes’ first season. And in 2007, I wrote a piece that suggested (quite accurately, at the time) that the fan campaign surrounding Jericho was what made Cultural Learnings what it was in its first year. It made me realize that what I wrote had an audience, and that said audience could be enormously passionate about things in ways that I simply was not. It was what convinced me of the value of writing about television online in a blog format, and my experience in that community (despite my lack of affection for the show itself) was an important part of this decade.
However, if there were a single show that defined television criticism in this decade for me and quite a few others, it would have to be According to Jim…
…wait, scratch that. Yes, I have to make a joke to distract you here, as I’m about to provide more praise for David Simon and Ed Burns’ The Wire, an epic tale of urban decay and personal tragedy that broke the hearts and captured the minds of critics and a relatively small number of viewers. It’s a show that will be near the top of almost every critical Top 10 list, and a show that until last summer I had never had the pleasure of watching. And that, if you look back in the archives, I’ve written about far less often than you might think, which isn’t entirely going to change here.
Rather than being the show that I’ve written the most content about, or the show that had the greatest emotional impact upon watching it, The Wire defines the past decade of television for me because it’s the show that has most made me want to be a television critic, to be able to not only analyze it more carefully but also spread the word and facilitate further discussion using the power of this blog. While I could probably get away with calling it the best television series of all time, my blind spots require me to simply say that no piece of television has had a larger impact on how I live my life than The Wire, both in terms of my choice to write television criticism and my aversion to hardware stores.
And I’m not sure there will be another show like it in the decade ahead.
I was chatting with Eugene Ahn one day, and he told me that he actually discovered Alan Sepinwall’s blog (What’s Alan Watching) through mine, which was inherently bizarre. While I can’t pinpoint the exact moment it happened, there is no question that my review style here at Cultural Learnings at some point became a close approximation of Alan’s, to the point where I refuse to read Alan’s reviews before I write my own out of fear of the similarities moving beyond an homage (and to the point where, despite my best efforts, on occasion write something shockingly similar, whether before or after Alan posts his thoughts). The idea that my blog had been someone’s introduction to this world of close readings and deconstructions was all kinds of empowering, because more than anything else my goal is to find those who think like I do about television and give them an outlet to discuss it…which, as Alan’s readers will know, is effectively Alan’s goal as well.
I won’t suggest that the cacophony of voices suggesting to watch The Wire did not offer a collective impulse to watch the show, but Alan’s Season 1 “Rewind” was the largest motivating factor. By separating posts for “Veterans” and “Newbies,” Alan made two important gestures. The first was insinuating it was possible for people new to the show to get on the bandwagon, actively encouraging people like me (Newbies) to start watching the show; the second, meanwhile, informs us that once we do watch the show there will be something more available to us, like an extra incentive that we’ll unlock only once we commit ourselves to the project. And despite the fact that I already knew enough about the show (and other serialized dramas) to understand that there’s additional value to rewatching and reconsidering any particular series, there was something amazing in the sheer number of comments his Veterans posts were drawing (and how the Newbies posts were well-populated, if not quite as impressively). Fans of The Wire weren’t just interested in the show after they finished it, they wanted to dissect it with intense precision.
And so I spent a few months making my way through the first four seasons on DVD before the Fifth Season was released, and then I could finally say that I had finished the series. And while the first thing I did was go back and read all of Alan’s reviews (okay, I’ll admit, I probably skipped a couple) in order to see what other people were saying about the first season and beyond, the second thing I did was take my DVDs and give them to my brother. I realized that while I wanted to be a commenter, taking part in these conversations about the show and how awesome it was (I led with that, right? That it’s awesome?), I also wanted to spread the word about the show to everyone else. The Wire was not a “hit” in most of the traditional meanings of the term, with only middling ratings and little award season love, but the degree to which the show has been spread through grassroots initiatives is immeasurable.
The Wire is a belief system more than a television series, the “Yes We Can” of the television decade. I remember listening to (and guesting on) the /Filmcast, and realizing how The Wire was a constant presence in entirely unrelated conversations, a point of reference for other TV shows, movies that worked with similar themes, and even personal conversations that have nothing to do with pop culture at all (to the point where people yet to see the light got tired of it and complained, leading Dave, Devindra and Adam to organize a special Wire podcast (featuring Alan and I) to get it out of their system). And the types of people who speak its virtues are not some isolated niche (science fiction fans for BSG, for example), but rather an enormously diverse collection of individuals (ranging from critics to laypersons, from professors to students, from bloggers to blog commenters, etc.) which even includes President Barack Obama himself.
And while most grassroots movements of this nature are designed to save a show, or are based on what one could consider “fandom,” The Wire feels like something different. It feels like we talk about the show because we want people to think about it, to see how the city of Baltimore crumbled under the weight of its bureaucracy and how the criminals and the people trying to catch them often face the same problems in trying to realize their true purpose in life (whatever that may be). Rather than focusing on a particular performance or a single character when selling the show, I find myself emphasizing the broader impact of its story, the deeper meaning behind the events which transpire in each season. While the show ended in early 2008, in reality that was only the beginning, and the fact that this epic “novel” has now been completed means the true impact of its amazingly complex narrative is clear to prospective viewers.
The Wire could, perhaps, be the greatest singular achievement in television history, but I don’t feel comfortable arguing the point since so much of that history (and, heck, even this decade’s history) remains a mystery to me, which is why I’ve been so careful to try to focus on only why I am attached to a particular series within this feature. However, there is something unnatural about claiming The Wire as your own: even people like Alan and Jason Mittell, who taught a course about the series, would likely never argue that their relationship with The Wire is something “special” (although both are welcome to argue that point), something that they relate to in a way that no one else can – perhaps the only ones who could argue this are those whose lives are directly reflected in its story of the drug trade, or labour unions, or politics, etc. And even then, the story is so much larger than just those points that its collective influence inspires us, or perhaps even forces us, to look beyond ourselves to something bigger, something greater.
In fact, what makes The Wire such a wonderful subject to write about or teach to a group of undergraduate students is that it is something that inspires people to become engaged at a fundamental level that welcomes the critical or academic eye in its foundation rather than through its vague allusions to theoretical or philosophical material. The Wire is theoretical and philosophical material, and those who watch it can’t help but engage with it and try to get others to do the same. When I give my DVDs out to people, they rarely watch the show in a bubble: when the discs went out to my friend Lucas, I would get constant MSN messages regarding his progress, and an intense dialogue when he would trade one season for the next. And while there are times writing television criticism when you feel as if you need to wrangle in a show, dominating it in order to either pin down its faults or defend it against undue criticism, The Wire just sort of happens to you.
When people look forward to the next decade of television, they look to distribution rather than the shows themselves, choosing Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog as a representative case less due to its quality and more due to its online debut. I love Dr. Horrible, but if it is the type of show that defines the next decade there is something arbitrary that can’t help but bug me. Having been writing about television for almost three years, I know that industry and creativity are intertwined, and that how we watch TV is becoming an important part of how shows are being constructed and how audiences are responding to them, but I want people to push further. I want them to not only focus on those shows which are creating new avenues for television but also those which are taking our expectations of what a television series represents and upending them within the existing system.
The Wire did not fundamentally re-invent the wheel when it comes to how people receive television, but rather took an existing art form and created something that never stopped evolving, that never stopped to fit into a particular genre or a particular structure in order to appeal to a certain type of viewer. It was a show that had a vision and executed it without caring about distribution and without ever feeling compromised (even when it was, like in its somewhat rushed fourth season that ended up being one of its finest). It’s a show that didn’t differentiate itself by airing on the internet but rather by just being so much more complex than anything else on television.
And going into the next decade, it feels like networks are more interested in re-inventing the wheel than in looking deeper into the wheel as it is and finding a use for it that no one has ever seen before, changing how we see the wheel we have as opposed to creating some newfangled new concept. And perhaps this is for the best: The Wire may well be an example that could never be surpassed, so attempting to recreate its impact within the existing order may just be too much of a challenge.
And yet, nonetheless, nothing excites me more than seeing people try, and the more we see that type of drive in the decade ahead the better television will be.
Your Turn: This could well become a spot to discuss your love of The Wire, but looking forward do you think that The Wire’s legacy will be something that people try to emulate, or will they ignore its more complex serialized approach in favour of content which combines television’s seriality with the short-form content prevalent on the internet? Thanks everyone for your comments so far in the series, thanks for sticking around!