The problem with having heroes isn’t necessarily that they can be wrong – it’s that at some point or another you’ll find yourself disagreeing with them and wondering who’s wrong: you or them. Someone could be your soulmate, your hero, or your best friend, and they can still say something you think is stupid. And you just have to get up and get over it.
I’ve had several conversations with my boyfriend recently that essentially resulted with me shouting at him that he should never worry about anyone’s opinion but his own. God bless him for not calling me a hypocrite. In the past few years, I’ve learned to be proud of my taste and obnoxiously unapologetic of the things I love. But when someone I admire insults something I care about, I’m still always unsure of how to react.
This week, I’ve been revisiting some behind-the-scenes writing from The Wire, another of my favorite shows ever. If you’ve been around TV writing or the Internet at all in the past few years, you likely rolled your eyes at that last sentence. Ask pretty much any TV writer, critic, or fan what the best show ever is, and you’ll likely get The Wire as an answer almost every time. And then you’ll get a lecture about the structure of the show and how you need to give it time before you give up on it because it’s unlike anything else. It’s one of the watershed television shows of our time, a touchstone of the Golden Age revolution.
I adore the show and I’m in love with the influence it’s had on modern television, so it wounds me every time I read creator David Simon’s prose and get reminded of how much he just hates TV. Granted, David Simon doesn’t seem fully enthusiastic about much of anything, but this is the one that hurts me most. How can the man responsible for possibly the finest example of a medium resent it so much? I guess I could ask The Sopranos’ creator David Chase, whose similarly expressed contempt towards television to the point that he hoped The Sopranos pilot wouldn’t get picked up, so that he could turn it into an indie movie instead. These two men represent possibly the most important creative shift in the history of my favorite art form, and yet they seem to detest it. But even though they’ve done more for television than I can ever dream of doing, I have to force myself to trust my conviction that their opinion can still be wrong. And it is.
Deep down I’ve always disliked the “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” motto. For a brand that was revolutionizing how seriously TV would be taken in the new century, for a time they certainly didn’t seem to think much of it themselves. Television isn’t synonymous with crap, and it wasn’t even in the early 90s. And the reason Oz, The Wire, The Sopranos, and Sex & the City succeeded wasn’t because they were filmic, or even because they were novelistic. They succeeded because they were pure television – just without the restrictions networks had grown accustomed to putting on it. Without censorship, without commercial breaks, and without forced exposition, discerning viewers could now see television in its natural and most beautiful state.
The Wire especially gets compared to a Great American Novel, thanks to its slowly winding structure and broad thematic scope. The constant reference to the show – by both critics and the creator – as a “visual novel” reminds me a lot of Truffaut’s infamous essays on the issues he had with the French film industry. Truffaut adored cinema more with every film he took in, and he resented screenwriters who seemed to talk down to the art form by simply adapting literary techniques to a visual medium. Cinema, he argued, had a lot of inherent visual tools for artistic expression, and they were being ignored by resentful screenwriters with elite novelistic aspirations. By approaching film as an inferior art form, they stunted its power of expression.
Truffaut’s writings resonate with me when I consider the general opinion on television (or at least the general opinion as it was a few years ago), but the case here is a bit different. The “Tradition of Quality” films Truffaut attacked were generally stale and unnecessary, while the shows produced by these men are extraordinary definitive examples of television. Rather than ignore the artistic toolkit in television, they took advantage of the medium by unfolding stories slowly and subtly, building out worlds and complex characters the depths of which could never be explored in a single sitting. They allow the single episodes to gestate in the viewers, as they absorb the show’s world into their own week by week. They utilize a specific, deliberate visual palette to evoke thoughts and themes without having to make them explicit with written exposition.
So perhaps Davids Simon & Chase were so focused on their own extraordinary vision that they missed what their work, and the work of men like Tom Fontana, David Milch, and Shawn Ryan, exposed about the true nature of television. And perhaps it’s only because of what these men built (and it sadly was mostly men, at least at the start) that it’s so easy for me to trust my own opinion and see the value and virtue of television storytelling. Even when it’s not on HBO.