Good news: “The Wire” is finally available on Blu-ray today, in a remastered edition with what is sure to be described as “sparkling picture and sound.”
The bad news: This isn’t really “The Wire,” at least not exactly. As is frequently the case with TV shows produced before the transition to widescreen, “remastered” here serves as something of a code word, indicating that the show’s original images in the 4:3 aspect ratio — basically the shape of an old TV set or a classic Hollywood movie — have been rejiggered to fit the now-ubiquitous 16:9 frame.
As Criticwire explored in depth when the remastered version was first broadcast on HBO, the adjustment of those images was a painstaking process, far better than, say, the careless treatment given to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” where the “opened-up” image frequently exposes crew members, light stands and other artifacts of production that were originally outside the frame. But “Wire” creator David Simon admitted in a lengthy blog post that changing the shape of the image significantly alters its meaning, sometimes in ways that enhance it, and sometimes in ways that detract from it. Simon asked HBO if they’d be able to remaster the show in its original ratio as well as the widescreen version, and he was told no: He could either take part in the reformatting, or have no part in the process. The “remastered” version, which is also the one available on HBO Go, is now, for all intents and purposes, the official one.
It’s true that, as with “Buffy” or “The Simpsons” or “Seinfeld,” the episodes as they originally aired are still available on DVD, in sets that you can have when you pry them from my cold, dead purist hands. But it’s also a fact that, especially going forward, most viewers will encounter these shows via streaming, where widescreen is the only way to see them. (The online “Simpsons World” has finally added an option to watch in 4:3, but it took many months after its initial launch.) Bringing this up makes some people angry, like the guy who commented on Criticwire’s original article that the remastering would make “The Wire” look “better than ever” — a statement based on nothing but a dogmatic faith that widescreen images “look better” than 4:3 ones. But it’s still a fact that this version of “The Wire” is different, subtly or otherwise, from the version that critics have hailed as one of the medium’s highlights.
What the treatment of “The Wire,” and “The Simpsons” and any number of shows reveals is that TV shows are still treated by the corporations who own them as a fungible commodity and not works of art — and the audience for those shows either doesn’t care or actively approves of having them modified so they fill their screens. Imagine the outcry from cinephiles if a “remastered” version of “Citizen Kane” was chopped to 16:9 — the inverse of the battles over letterboxing that were fought in the 1990s. There’s so much talk about how we’re in a prolonged Golden Age of TV, but if we really believe TV is, or at least can be, art, then we need to demand past landmarks are treated with the care they deserve.