Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Is this the end of The Wire?

Word is that HBO’s The Wire, probably the best show on television, might not be brought back for a fourth year. If this were NBC we were talking about, the show’s axing would be a done deal. It’s a little disheartening to see that HBO, which has far less need to slavishly follow the ratings, is acting like they are no better or wiser.

In a multi-channel cable universe dominated by programs that appeal to the least-demanding audience, HBO has stood head and shoulders above the rest, demonstrating a commitment to quality programming that is unmatched anywhere else.

That attitude, along with a willingness to take risks on an unconventional show, has paid off with The Wire. For three seasons now, the cast and creators of the show have produced what is arguably the finest television being created today. Unfortunately, the audience hasn’t been as accepting as the critics, causing a steep downturn in the ratings this past season.

The network has to accept a large part of the blame for that, however. After successfully using The Wire as counter-programming its first two seasons, running it against the summer rerun onslaught, HBO decided to air the show on Sunday nights in the middle of the fall season. Doing so placed it in direct competition with ABC’s breakout hit Desperate Housewives, as well as the NFL on ESPN. No show could survive that battle unscathed.

It’s a shame, too, as The Wire is the rare show that actually deserves a little special consideration. Although The Sopranos is the show that gets the majority of the plaudits and attention, The Wire is arguably superior. It features sharper writing and more complex plots, while at the same time not relying on tropes that are at least as old as The Godfather.

What The Wire has done so well – and what makes it such a great show – is capture the essence of fine crime fiction and present it in a vibrant, dramatic fashion on the small screen. The elements that make the crime novel work (e.g., moral ambiguity, multi-faceted, often unsympathetic characters, twisted and suspenseful plots, insight into police and criminal procedure) are all part of
the stories The Wire tells so well.

Of course, none of this should come as a surprise, given the quality of talent responsible for writing the show. Not only is David Simon (the creator of Homicide) the Executive Producer and one of the writers, but also on board are acclaimed crime writers George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and Richard Price. That line-up surely gives this show the most prestigious literary pedigree on television.

The novelistic background of the writers of The Wire serves the show well, as they have the courage not to pull their punches, something that is almost never seen in network television. In a medium where writers are generally desperate to make their characters likable caricatures, The Wire goes in the opposite direction. They don’t care about making nice; they just want to get it right.

There are times when the show’s villains – most of them drug dealers – are the most amiable and admirable figures. The character of Stringer Bell (played by Idris Elba), in particular, is fascinating, with his attendance at college economics classes and other attempts to elevate his mind and his status.

On the other hand, Jimmy McNulty (played by Dominic West), the nominal hero of the show, is quite often something of a creep, drinking himself into oblivion, pissing away his career, using his kids to help tail a suspect – the same young children he leaves home alone at night to answer a bootie call – and otherwise making a hash of his life.

Of course, the complexity of the characters is part of the problem the show has in developing an audience. Most television viewers like their shows to be simple, with clear-cut good guys and bad guys. They want to cheer and hiss like the audience at a melodrama; they don’t want to think or be challenged.

They also want shows that are easy to follow, with simplistic stories and tidy endings. The Wire doesn’t deliver those things either. The story arcs last the entire season; they take time to develop and grow, and require the viewer to put in a little effort to keep up with the plot. (Along with Fox’s 24, this is really a show that you have to watch each week to fully appreciate.)

But the pay-off is more than worth it, as the stories are fresh and compelling and as entertaining as anything you will see on TV. With such quality programs as The Sopranos and Curb Your Enthusiasm, HBO has proved that it is the place for the best shows on television. If they can’t find room for The Wire in their line-up, that would really be a crime.

Write to HBO to request they keep The Wire alive.