What IS the Correct Way Watch 'The Wire'?

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.

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