Monday, March 30, 2009

The BBC Gives THE WIRE Some Respect

Following the British press has often left me with the feeling that The Wire had a stronger support base in England than it had in the United States. This was just affirmed by a "feature piece" on the Telegraph Web site reporting that "BBC Two is now showing all 60 episodes nightly, Monday to Friday, starting tonight." I like to think of this as "literary television;" and it reminds me of when the Philadelphia PBS station ran the episodes of The Forsyte Saga nightly and totally hooked me into the unfolding drama with an intensity that is sorely lacking in the stuff now being obtained for Masterpiece Theatre (which seems to have become Masterpiece Classic, under a more general Masterpiece rubric, without my noticing). I do not hesitate to call The Wire "literary," because this is precisely the stance that co-creator David Simon wanted to take:

Our models are the big Russian novels. We’re trying to do with modern-day Baltimore what Balzac did with Paris, or Dickens with London.

Back in the day the BBC did precisely this kind of number of War and Peace; and that particular instance of "literary television" sustained me through several months of the time I spent working in Israel.

Simon has never been shy about why the general public never followed most of the critics in getting hooked on The Wire:

The average Emmy voter has the attention span of a gnat.

Vladimir Nabokov had chosen somewhat more elegant language when he lectured about reading Dostoevsky as "a mischievous but very healthy pleasure, as you stamp and groan through a second-rate book which has been awarded a prize" (a pleasure which I had experienced at its greatest when I had to write a review of Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach); but Simon basically hit the nail on the head. Babylon 5 fought the same battle against viewer attention span, and not too long ago my wife and I indulged in the complete DVD collection to give the entire narrative the close reading it deserved. We plan to do the same for The Wire, now that we have all the episodes on DVD.

Meanwhile, the attention span problem remains with us. Brian Lowry's initial review of Dollhouse for Variety was politely dismissive at best, concluding that it was difficult to rate the show on the basis of its first two episodes. Well, Brian, would you have rated War and Peace at all, if you had never gotten any further than Anna Pavlovna's party? Would you have bailed on Proust before he dipped that madeleine in his tea? Lowry seemed willing to grant that the Dollhouse narrative was complex, but he felt a need to pass judgment on the "authenticity" of that complexity by summoning connotations of pretension while that script was still unfolding its characters and their motives at a pace that would not have troubled either Tolstoy or Proust.

Reading a narrative is not just a matter of recognizing the plot line and following it. It is also a matter of reflecting on where the plot is going and how other factors, such as the settings and the characters, contribute to the course of that plot. "Literary television" played out in episodes supports such reflection simply by virtue of the temporal gaps between the episodes, just as we reflect on where Tolstoy or Proust is taking us each time we put down the book we are reading. I grant Simon his sarcasm and recognize that "literary television" will never acquire the "competitive numbers" that determine success in what Edward Jay Epstein calls "the new logic of money and power in Hollywood;" but I am glad that there are production organizations like HBO that are still willing to satisfy the needs of those of us who never seem to be satisfied with anything less than "literary."

1 comment:

Wes said...

And gone are the playhouse shows that attracted writers like Paddy Chayefsky and actors like Rod Steiger (Marty: 1953) before Steiger gave way to Borgnine.