Archive for the ‘dennis leary’ tag
Nearly spoiler-free discussion of The Wire, The Sopranos, and Lost
Critical consensus is that The Wire is the best television show of the decade, and probably the best show in the history of television. Perhaps despite being the best, though, the show is not particularly influential. Media scholar Jason Mittell recently wrote that The Wire, like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, is immediately recognized by informed viewers/listeners as a great work of art, but also recognized as completely inimitable. You admire it, you are in awe of it, but you don’t attempt to do what it does. Perhaps partly, you are intimidated, but more importantly it seems like something that it would be impossible to try and copy. So not only do you not try to examine why it is successful and then copy it, you don’t even try to draw any lessons from what makes that show great. Its greatness is unique and its uniqueness is inimitable.
In comparison, I’d like to add that despite being vastly inferior to The Wire, The Sopranos may be the most influential television show since Friends. (Possible exception for Survivor.) And while I felt the show was consistently over-rated and I lost interest in the show after two seasons, I do think The Sopranos had a much bigger impact on television than The Wire. The variety of its influences is as notable as the intensity of its influence.
- It convinced Hollywood actors that there were great roles for them in television. Dennis Leary, Glenn Close, and more came to TV in large part because they watched The Sopranos and found the stories so powerful and the acting so superb that they thought they could do better there than in Hollywood. The standard for dramatic acting was upped.
- In what would become one of the most annoying trends on television in the 2000s, The Sopranos used therapy as a contrivance to give actors an opportunity to go mono a mono in scenes that seemed designed for an actors’ workshop. You could determine a show’s pretensions by how often its characters went to therapy (except for Monk, which used the trope for comic effect). By the time Gregory House, M.D., got around to it, he had to be fully committed to an asylum for there to be any plausibility in what was by 2009 a hackneyed plot device.
- Want to get arty? Try a dream episode! We’ll have nearly silent scenes played out on a boardwalk, and everyone will want to get in on the game. Sure, Buffy also did it with “Restless,” but it was David Chase who codified the idea that inner turmoil over a tough decision should be visually represented in a dream episode or dream sequence. Protege Matthew Weiner would add a twist by making Don Draper’s dreams into daydreams and memories, but the basic model still holds.
- Great television happens on cable. Drama found its home on cable, with each channel that wanted to make a name for itself finding a flagship drama that would define its ambitions (AMC’s Mad Men, SciFi/SyFy’s Battlestar Galactica, FX’s The Shield, Showtime’s Dexter). Each of these was an attempt to build a brand through HBO’s success with The Sopranos (and to a much lesser extent, Sex and The City and Six Feet Under).
- Catholics get all the good stories. If you want religious characters on television, two rules apply: they’ve gotta be Christian, and they’ve gotta be nondescript or Catholic. Evangelical? Charismatic? Mennonite? And, God forbid, Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist? Good luck! The Sopranos reinforced the notion that guilt is what makes religion interesting, and Catholics hold the reigns on dramatic guilt. (The idea of Jewish guilt, with its siblings harping and nagging, get manifested in comedic roles, and we’re talking drama here.) Obviously, Big Love stands as an exception, but we all recognize how exceptional that sympathetic and unflinching portrayal of religion is. If you don’t want to play up the guilt, go the Reverend Lovejoy route and make the character nondescript and mainline, and then use that for a funny episode of how your sit-com family is conflicted over whether to take the kids to church.
I could go on and on about how The Sopranos either created or reinforced various ideas about television drama in its storytelling and in its prominence, but let’s get back to The Wire. What is The Wire‘s legacy?
Its legacy is not the complex, long-developing storylines. Attempts at that style of storytelling wore their Lost comparisons openly, or were soapy WB/UPN/CW teeny-bopper shows. No episode of The Wire (including the pilot) makes sense by itself, any more than a chapter of a novel could stand on its own. Lost built its mythology as it went and used mysterious clues to keep the viewer guessing, but The Wire presumes that you would understand each character had a backstory in the way that a newspaper article about the Great Recession assumes you lived through the financial crisis of 2008. It simply picks up mid-way through a story and lets the viewer fill in the rest. It does it without the wink to the viewer that Lost is always giving (there’s a polar bear on a tropical island, but we’re not telling you why!). It is played with a completely straight face, with a seriousness appropriate to a newspaper story.
Its legacy is not the quality of the acting, which was uniformly superb. The acting on The Wire is not showy the way it is on The Sopranos or even Mad Men. Who would you give an Emmy to in any given year? Obviously The Wire had some of the most memorable characters in the history of television, but even when the actors were doing their best work, there was no guarantee that they would get an Emmy-ready episode written for them. Just as each character is beaten down by the system, each performance is subsumed to the story of the city of an American city. (Maybe Baltimore should have won an Emmy?) And while other television shows openly stole actors from the stable developed by the superb East Coast casting, no one is giving Michael K. Williams roles like James Gandolfini is offered.
If there is any legacy for The Wire, it will be the way it elevated the possibility of television as an art form. People who don’t care about TV can find that they care about The Wire, just as someone with no art background can find the joy in a Christo and Jeanne-Claude. You tell your friends about The Wire the way that Mittell tells his friends about Astral Weeks. Referring to a remarkable run of films in the ’50s and ’60s, Mike D’Angelo recently wrote that Jean-Luc Godard was a game-changer who didn’t change the game at all. And that may be exactly what happened with The Wire. It was so great, so special, so revered, that no one really knows how to do more than name-check it.