Update: David Simon has posted clips showing "The Wire" in its original and remastered versions. See end of post.
Back in September, when a bunch of websites prematurely ran with the news that HBO was running a marathon of a remastered version of "The Wire," there was lots of speculation about what that might mean, particularly when it came to dealing with the show's 4:3 aspect ratio in the widescreen era. Well, now we've got our answer. The remastered "The Wire" will be made available via HBO Go on December 26, with one full season a day airing on HBO Signature, and the whole thing will be available for digital purchase on January 5. And according to HBO:
The entire series has been beautifully re-mastered in 16x9 Full-Frame HD from more than 8,000 reels of original 35mm camera negative, allowing for a tighter fit on widescreen TVs and computer/tablet screens. The original negatives were scanned, edited, dust-busted and color-corrected with great care and attention taken to stay true to the look and feel of the original Standard-Definition 4x3 version.
Stripping away the PR-speak, that means HBO is reframing the entire show so that idiots won't complain that it doesn't fill up their flatscreens. They can spin staying "true to the look and feel" of the show, but David Simon and his crew made a deliberate artistic decision to stick with 4:3 even as other shows were going widescreen — even abandoning the process of "future-proofing" after the initial season. As director of photography David Insley explained:
"The reason the show has stayed 4x3 is because David Simon thinks that 4x3 feels more like real life and real television and not like a movie.... When the show started 2001 / 2002 they framed it for 16 x 9 as a way of future-proofing. Then a couple of seasons ago, right before Season 4 began shooting, there was a big discussion about it and after much discussion — David, Nina, Joe Chappelle, the Producers, the DPs — and we discussed what should be the style of the show. David made the decision that we would stay with 4x3."
According to a post on his blog, creator David Simon is on board with the remastering, which will undoubtedly give the show a significant boost in public profile. But it's still not "The Wire" as it was broadcast the first time around: As Simon writes, you can optimize the image for one aspect ratio and "protect" for another, but you can't do both. "I’m satisfied what while this new version of 'The Wire' is not, in some specific ways, the film we first made," he says, "it has sufficient merit to exist as an alternate version."
Perhaps, though it's unlikely, the Blu-rays due out next year will allow viewers to choose their own version of "The Wire," though this might be a good time to snap up the old DVDs, which feature the show exactly as it aired. After all, users of FX's Simpsons World were supposed to be able to view "The Simpsons" in its original aspect ratio, a promise that has yet to be fulfilled, months after the site's initial launch. But let's not pretend this is anything other than the modern equivalent of colorization or superfluous surround-sound remixes, undoing deliberate artistic choices so that audiences don't have to adjust their frame of reference — which is a substantial part of what "The Wire" spent five seasons fighting against.
Update: Simon has now added clips to his blog showing scenes in their original and remastered versions. True to the forthright way he's handling the situation, he's posted one pair where he feels the remastering improves the scene, and one where he feels more substantial alteration was in order.
In a sequence from "The Wire's" second season, Simon writes that "the dockworkers are all that much more vulnerable, and that much more isolated by the death of their leader when we have the ability to go wider in that rare crane shot."
Note: The first set of clips contains a major Season 2 spoiler.
But in a scene from the pilot, Simon says, "the new aspect ratio’s ability to acquire more of the world actually detracts from the intention of the scene and the composition of the shot. For that reason, we elected in the new version to go tighter on the key two-shot of Bey and D’Angelo in order to maintain some of the previous composition, albeit while coming closer to our backlit characters than the scene requires."
Simon allows this is "an arguable trade-off," but it's great that he's giving viewers the tools to make an informed decision.