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by Alison Willmore
April 6, 2012 10:35 AM
7 Comments
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What IS the Correct Way to Watch 'The Wire'?

'The Wire' HBO

"The Wire" creator David Simon caused an uproar among followers of his work -- a little Baltimore crime drama that's regularly declared one of the greatest television shows of all time -- when he revealed in an interview with the New York Times' ArtsBeat blog yesterday the exasperation he feels with the fandom that's built up around the show. To use his word, it's "wearying," both in how the show now gets dissected by episode and by character and in the way it has a larger following now than it did when it was on the air, struggling to get renewed throughout its five season HBO run.

"I do have a certain amused contempt for the number of people who walk sideways into the thing and act like they were there all along," Simon sighed, the refrain of all those who went unappreciated in their time. (And yes, that time was only a handful of years ago, and he's since had "Generation Kill" and "Treme," but you know what I mean.) But in going into his exhaustion with "Wire"ites, Simon reveals a fascinating and near-contradictory idea about how he thinks of his own show and the ideal way to consume it.

"It was conceived of as a whole, and we did it as a whole," he declares, noting that he's felt the same frustration with his newer shows and people who make judgments and think they know where things are headed after only a few episodes. "Nobody knows what anyone’s building until it’s built." Later he adds that "It doesn’t matter whether they love it or they hate it. It doesn’t mean anything until there’s a beginning, middle and an end."

But he also have beef with the latecomers who weren't watching and supporting the series on air, manipulating the same phrase to say "no one was there in the beginning, or the middle, or even at the end. Our numbers continued to decline from Season 2 on." Which suggests that the ideal viewer, in Simon's mind, both tuned in regularly and faithfully from the beginning and yet withheld judgment and interpretation until show ended -- a feat that's not only impossible, it would kill off media coverage and word of mouth, things that shows rely on more than marketing to drive viewership.

Simon is one of the great artists dealing in serialized storytelling today, and I supposed he's earned the right to be as grumpy as he wants toward his admirers, just as they're free to make giant charts recasting characters from "The Wire" as ones in "Lord of the Rings" -- the work's out in the world, which means you can't control how people consume it.

But Simon's also pinpointed a fundamental issue with how we look at television that's worth being taken seriously:  Television coverage skews hugely toward the recap, toward looking at shows episode by episode instead of by season or, in Simon's views, per run.

It makes sense -- after all, that's how TV is made, and that's how we watch it. But it definitely shortchanges series built around a larger vision (a luxury most don't have). You wouldn't watch a half-hour of a film, review it, watch another 30 minutes, and write another review, and so on. If Simon sees "The Wire" as a 60-hour whole, it's easier to understand his annoyance with anyone who watches five episodes and thinks they get what he's trying to say.

Maybe someday he'll be able to find someone to pony up $90 million to shoot an entire series at once, will disappear for a few years and emerge with a complete vision to present the world, once the world is able to take a few days off of work to binge-watch it. Until then, Simon's going to have to deal with the unique mixture of commerce and art that is television, and with the fact that people love his work, even if it's not in the way he wants.

7 Comments

  • GT | September 24, 2012 5:12 PMReply

    As a fan of a number of shows whose critical acclaim always transcended their ratings numbers, I can feel where David Simon is coming from. That said, it is a totally different and often richer experience to watch episodes of a series back-to-back -- especially for more serialized shows, versus having to wait, interminably, for a week between episodes or as long as 9 months between seasons on cable TV.

  • mark | April 7, 2012 3:07 PMReply

    "Maybe someday he'll be able to find someone to pony up $90 million to shoot an entire series at once"

    Yes, and that someone might be Netflix. I started Season 2 of the Wire on DVD at 11PM one night. I went to bed at about 8 the next morning. I simply could not stop watching. It was the closest I'd ever seen filmed entertainment coming to a book.

    But everyone I know watched The Wire that way. In fact, almost everyone I know is now annoyed at waiting a week for the next episode of anything. We all really love being able to consume much larger pieces, take in arcs, etc. in longer sittings, like we read books.

    Along comes Netflix, disrupting the original content game, much as they disrupted the rental game. They are releasing TV shows in the way their audience watches them; all at once or over and over as they wish. Which I find both brilliant and practical.

    I worship Simon as a storyteller, but the release format for The Wire worked directly against his stated desires. Maybe with this next leap in TV, he might actually get what he wants.

  • db | April 6, 2012 7:43 PMReply

    David Simon needs to get over himself. Yes, the Wire is great. Yes, both Homicide and The Wire had "breakthrough" moments and techniques.
    However, he's putting together a television show. If he wants to make a 60-hour experience, he shouldn't be making television unless, perhaps, he's able to mount a miniseries in today's world. I don't recall how long "Roots" or Spielberg's "Taken" was, but each season as a miniseries is about as close as he'll possibly get to having an audience watch "his vision" as a whole.
    He's admitted that he expects a lot from his audience, but 60 hours without judgement is something people don't commit to -- in almost ANY form. And, I seriously doubt if the Johnny-come-latelies (which includes me) were the ones who stopped watching the original run on HBO. They are new converts and he should be appreciative.

  • molly | April 6, 2012 3:04 PMReply

    My friend Lisa is notorious for showing up to parties with a gift in hand that she has carefully selected from a closet of freebies someone gave her. The nicest gift (a loan, actually) she ever gave me was the privilege of watching her boxed set of The Wire over the course of a week or so. It took another week or so to recover. There may never ever be better television than that series. I wish I'd been there from the start to contribute to the fandom in a way that could have kept it going on HBO. So, to David Simon I apologize. The experience taught me a lot about the value of watching the whole thing at once, though. Maybe broadcasters will learn how to count that and invest properly.

  • Wire-ite | April 6, 2012 1:35 PMReply

    I remember being able to afford hbo late during the fifth season of the Wire. I would consider myself way-late to the party but I still had my judgements. Judgements that I finally put to rest recently with the advent of HBO go (or so I thought.) I buckled down and watch the entire 5 seasons at every chance; between changing diapers of my 3-month old, dishes, eating, and going for a run. In short I was hooked. But my judgement still remains. The Wire is a capsule of real life on screen. Not reality TV. But Real Life. Whether I watched 3 episodes or 30, the end result was always a newly imported perception of what I had been missing out of everyday life. Truth had become truer when realizing the lies it took to become truth in the first place. I lied to myself. I could afford HBO back then, but after being lied to over and over with basic cable I doubted that buying in, to watch just one show would have been a waste. I also did not want any association with the network that created sex in the city. Thats over now, so is this post.

  • Rachel EA | April 6, 2012 11:52 AMReply

    I think Joss Whedon's shows suffer a bit from what Simon is getting at, too. You do have to look at the long arc to fully appreciate the depth of the writing & ideas. The analogy of not stopping a movie every 30 minutes is a good one. When you take one chunk/episode out, it might have some good lines, some good scenes, but you'll never _fully_ appreciate even those unless you take in the context of the whole series. Whedon had a harder time in some ways (certainly on 'Firefly'!!) because he was dealing with dumb-ass producers who wanted him to pander to the advertisers. Simon knows about that, at least somewhat, from his involvement with 'Homocide'. The fact is, Americans are not patient viewers; we do not take the long view, habitually - we like to make snap judgements based on our gut and not have to _think_ too much about our "entertainment." I didn't watch 'The Wire' on TV because it was on a premium channel, but I am loving it now, watching it all in a row on DVD like a long book (I just started Season 5). This is the way to see it, I think. Maybe Simon should think about that -- DVDs as books with episodes as chapters and seasons as volumes.

  • shawn edwards | April 6, 2012 11:26 AMReply

    "The Wire" is the best TV show ever. Period. End of story.

    Shawn Edwards
    FOX-TV