All in the Game: The Wire

Matt: Let’s talk about The Wire. You quote the HBO executive Carolyn Strauss as saying, “That show was at death’s door at the end of every fucking season.” I knew Simon had trouble after Season Three, but I didn’t know every renewal was that hard.

Alan: Well, a lot of people would argue that The Wire was a better show than The Sopranos was. But it was never as popular as The Sopranos. And it was in some ways more challenging. You could watch The Sopranos and think, “Oh, guys gettin’ whacked, people cursing, fart jokes,” and ignore the other layers. The Wire had a certain amount of violence and coarse humor, but it was a more difficult show. It has become much more popular in death than it was in life.

Matt: You point out that HBO sent out all of Season Four of The Wire to critics at once. That’s become common practice for certain types of shows nowadays, but it was unusual then, wasn’t it? [Note: At the time, networks did this for miniseries, but not for regular series.]

Wire Season 4 Classroom
Alan: I talked to a lot of writers for this book, and not one of them could think of a case in which that was done before. The thinking was, “This is a show with a lot of characters and a very complex plot, people always react better to a series at the end of its run than at the beginning, let’s send the whole season out at once and see what happens.” Season Four of The Wire was the perfect season of a show to do that with, because of the whole story involving the kids. It’s probably my favorite season of the show.

But that decision also speaks to what was happening at that time that was new. Doing a 10 or 12 or 13 episode order, finishing the whole thing and then sending it all out—a network couldn’t do that [before], because network shows made so many more episodes during a season, which meant shows were in production pretty much year-round.

Matt: You write of The Wire, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It isn’t designed like any TV show before it, not even the other early successes of this new golden age. It isn’t designed to be broken apart into bits, some parts elevated over others or consumed separately.”

For all the evolution that’s happened in American TV storytelling since The Sopranos, I can’t think of too many other shows that fit that description nowadays, Alan. There are exceptions. Treme, of course, but that’s a David Simon show. Sons of Anarchy is probably another one. The subject matter and tone on that one is more “pop” than on a Simon show. But I suspect that if you dropped somebody into season three or four of that show, they’d have no clue what the hell was going on—

Alan: There’s just such a Byzantine power struggle going on in that show. All the FX dramas have “Previously on Sons of Anarchy...” segments that seem to run almost as long as the episode.

Matt: [Laughs] Yes! You get near the end of a season of Sons of Anarchy, and you could cook a meal in the time it takes for them to get you up to speed on what happened previously. It’s not hard to see why there is resistance, even now, to this idea of television that has to be consumed and thought about in totality. Most of the shows that are devoted to that principle either have a small audience—which is the case with Treme—or they get cancelled after one season, which was the case with Rubicon.

Breaking Bad small
Alan: I would say that Breaking Bad is a show in that vein. It took me till season three to fall in love with it in the way that I’m in love with it now, because—in much the same way as The Wire—it’s paced very slowly early on, it’s a different kind of tone than you’re used to, and you really need to see each piece built on top of every piece that came before for it to make sense, and for it to have the power that is has once you get to seasons two and three and beyond.

The Whole and the Parts: TV in Totality

Matt: Would you say that of the current dramas, Breaking Bad is the one that most needs to be considered in totality? Or are there other shows that need to be watched that way?

Alan: I think Mad Men is a show like that. If you watch “The Suitcase” from season four onward, you’ll be able to say, “Yes, this is good acting,” but you won’t be able to appreciate it if you haven’t been watching four years of Don and Peggy building up to that moment. Game of Thrones, I think, is like that—and obviously that series comes from the world of books. In fact, I think there are certain ways in which the narrative structure of Game of Thrones is not ideally suited to television, where they’re bouncing around from place to place, but the series does try.

Matt: There’s an important difference, though, between Breaking Bad and Mad Men and, say, Game of Thrones, The Wire and Treme— which you get into to a certain extent in the book—which is that some of these dramas, no matter how complex their plots, do at least give you a character or characters that are definitely the leads. That gives you something to latch onto.

Alan: True.

Matt: Even on Sons of Anarchy, which is an ensemble show, they orient you by letting you know that it’s basically about the bikers—the issue of succession, of who’s going to lead the club. That was never the case with The Wire. You may have a central plotline that serves as a spine for a whole season, but that was truly an ensemble show, and even the way the show was structured was extremely rigorous, almost off-putting. These characters and this subplot get two minutes, then we’re onto this other thing. Treme is that way, but even more so, to the point where I respect it but I find it frustrating, in that they’ll have a life-or-death storyline that gets two minutes, and then there’ll be two minutes about Antwone and his struggles with his high school band.

Alan: It can be frustrating. I was watching an episode of Parenthood the other night that was like that. In one scene you’ve got cancer, and you’ve got post-traumatic stress disorder, and then you’ve got a teenage boy getting caught fooling around with his girlfriend. You know? It’s like, “Uh, one of these is a bit more compelling than the other.”

Matt: It can be maddening. But I respect it in the case of something like Treme, because it’s indicative of David Simon’s worldview, which I think comes out of having worked in the world of general interest daily newspapers, where you have all these different sections telling stories of varying degrees of seriousness. Even though there are certain stories that are marked as more important than others by virtue of placement on the front page, ultimately, when you hold the entire newspaper in your hand, you get a sense of all things being equal.

That’s why there’s something humbling about Treme. Rationally, we know that every one of is us but an extra in the drama of life, and so forth, even though each of us thinks we’re the lead. But David Simon’s dramas are adamant in driving that home.