Assuming that television can, in fact, be fairly characterized as the dominant narrative form of our time (and I’d say that’s not an entirely ludicrous proposition), it’s somewhat curious just how narrowly circumscribed its offerings — domestically speaking, at any rate — have traditionally been. This is, after all, a medium that for decades hesitated to depict married couples sleeping in the same bed, an outlet that once went so far in its efforts at avoiding the scatological as to force a family of eight (the Bradys) to share a single bathroom with no toilet.
Of course by now any number of these boundaries have been transgressed. The slow drip of “hells” and “damns” that started some 30 years back has turned into a steady trickle of second-string profanities. Billy Crystal’s once-controversial turn as the gay Jodie Dallas on Soap has given way to the likes of Will & Grace. Dennis Franz showed his ass to an audience of millions. South Park has somehow managed to get its name attached to an entire wing of the Republican Party.
And then there’s cable — more significantly your premium channels, most significantly Showtime and HBO. Sometime around the turn of the century, the powers-that-were at these two networks came to the rather belated realization that not all their programming had to revolve around first-runs of third-rate movies and documentaries devoted to the sex lives of skeevy middle-aged swingers. The networks had dabbled in creating their own original series before — The Larry Sanders Show being perhaps the most prominent example — but it was in the early Aughts, as shows like Sex and the City, Six Feet Under and Queer As Folk started to garner critical plaudits and cult followings that this sort of programming gained legitimate traction. And then came The Sopranos, basically busting the whole business wide open.
These shows, and the many similarly produced programs that followed them, were, in a modest way, something quite unique — television made with the seriousness and freedom and care more typically associated with film. Being premium cable, Showtime and HBO could operate with minimal fear of offending the FCC’s delicate sensibilities. Being subscriber-based, they could afford to take risks on potential ratings-stinkers. Essentially, they were the perfect platforms for testing out just how high-brow television could go.
More interesting than the shifts in content, though, are the structural changes. With a few exceptions (daytime soap operas come most immediately to mind) TV is a relentlessly episodic medium. A show’s writers might indulge in any number of recurring gags, extended sub-plots or multi-episode story arcs. At the end of the day, though, the sanctity of the hour or half-hour slot has to be maintained. Save for those occasional cases in which a show closes with the maddening promise of “to be continued…”, it’s understood that you’ll arrive at some rough resolution by an episode’s end. This is obviously true so far as your half-hour sitcoms and police and legal procedurals go, but it’s equally the case with less blatantly formulaic shows — programs that rely on plots and twists and character development designed with multiple seasons in mind, not just a single episode. Shows like The West Wing or Lost run on storylines meant to string viewers along not just for a week, but for years, and yet, they’re always intensely aware of their hour box. Watching them, one feels in each episode the clock ticking down to the inevitable epiphany — as reliable and predictable as a New Yorker short story. The shows are written as part of a larger whole, but each is a discrete, sufficient entity unto itself, with its own distinct rhythm and beginning, middle, and end. This is the way things are done. Television has always been more a song cycle than a symphony.
Or it was, anyway — until The Wire. In addition to being the finest show currently on TV, the HBO crime drama is, by virtue of having wholly shed the medium’s episodic impulse, also the most original. Give The Sopranos credit, if you like, for preparing the field with a few of its more meandering, arythmic offerings (season five’s “The Test Dream” is one prime example), but no program has dismissed the old hour/half-hour convention quite so completely as The Wire. David Simon, the show’s creator, has referred to it as a “novel,” and that is, in a sense, precisely what he’s created. As opposed to the pinched staccato of your typical TV series, Simon has written an open, flowing, expansive work that matches its stride not to the 60-minute slots that are its weekly allotment, but to the now almost 50 hours that comprise the piece as a whole.
Fifty hours — it’s the sort of canvas more befitting a Russian novel than a television show. Has any other popular work — a movie or TV show, made for any screen of any size — enjoyed this sort of scope, attacked so broad an expanse of territory? It strikes me as a radical departure from the usual way of doing things, a form that, though seemingly familiar, is in fact, dramatically different — a new, relatively unexplored structure that affords all manner of opportunities. The characters a writer can develop, the layers he can build, the resonances he can plant and plan and tap, the sheer volume of myths and memories he’s able to create and then exploit — possibilities that didn’t exist before are granted by the simple virtue of space.
Now, just how useful such space will be ratings-wise, of course, remains to be seen. The Wire might well be the brave new future of TV, but through three seasons, it certainly hasn’t seemed that way. It’s done just fine with the critics, but among civilians, viewership has always been a bit lackluster. If season four doesn’t pull in a bigger crowd, chances are HBO will smother the show with a pillow — leaving its admirers with nothing but fond memories and a stack of DVDs.
Which, to be perfectly honest, wouldn’t be so bad. Because really, while it’s technically a television show, video is The Wire’s natural home. It’s not meant to be watched one hour at a time, taken via a cable box in carefully rationed weekly doses. It’s a show that should be watched according to its own pacing — which is to say, feasted upon hour after hour in a wildly irresponsible manner. Technology, almost as if anticipating the form, has provided in the DVD an ideal device for doing just that. The show can be held and viewed just as it was conceived — as a whole. This is a nice option to have with any program, but with this one it’s particularly appropriate. It’s a show to get lost in — the sort of thing you start on a Saturday evening and ride well into Sunday morning. You come to on your living room couch some 12 or so hours after you began, bleary-eyed, crumb-flecked, muttering to yourself in a rough Baltimore patois. You’re unshaven, a bit disoriented, an all-around charming individual. Now stretch. Look out your window. See the thin grey dawn creep in over the rooftops. Now stand up. Put in disc four. You can do a whole other season if you hurry.