Twenty years from now I truly think people will look back on the 2000s as a golden era of television.
Not only have we witnessed the rise of reality shows as a force of nature (real people in ridiculous situations — what’s not to like???), but this is also a time when some truly groundbreaking dramatic shows of unparalleled depth and complexity hit the airwaves.
The Sopranos (actually debuted in ’99, but still), Six Feet Under, Lost, Big Love, Deadwood, many many others, and, in my opinion the absolute pinnacle of the form and the best television series I have ever seen: The Wire.
What does this have to do with books? Well, I think there are two reasons for this golden era that also happen to be very relevant to writing.
The first cornerstone of this golden era is that after appealing to the lowest common denominator for forty years and more or less following H.L. Mencken’s maxim that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public, TV show creators did something extremely crucial: they started trusting their viewers.
I was too young to watch the classic TV series Dallas the first time around, but my fiancee and I recently rented the DVDs, and it was seriously amazing to watch. Not only because of the hilariously dated aspects, such as a reference to the exoticness of an avocado, but to our modern eyes everything was revealed extreeeeemly slooowly. Nothing happened that wasn’t explained in depth. There wasn’t a whole lot of complexity to the plots, either — JR was evil, Bobby was good, Sue Ellen was drunk. Piece of cake.
Compare that to The Wire, with multiple intersecting plots, dozens and dozens of characters, little to no exposition to explain who is who and which side each person is on. Throw in some intense slang and you have one big recipe for confusion.
But it all comes together in an incredible fashion. There have been times when I was lost and confused, but eventually it all makes sense and it’s just such an unparalleled, comprehensive look at an entire city, the different elements and currents that make up our society, and the intractable nature of our worst problems.
All of this is possible because the creators of the show trust that their viewers are intelligent enough to figure it all out.
The second cornerstone is that in order to have a complex show it has to be populated with similarly complex characters, and our golden era has given us some of the most memorable and richly rendered characters in television history.
Going back to Dallas, JR is extremely memorable and one of the greatest characters ever — no one has made being evil look more fun. But complex? Not really.
Compare JR to the extremely complex characters on the Wire, such as Omar, a fearsome gay outlaw who makes living stealing from drug dealers and lives by his own strict moral code. Omar is a nuanced character with his own language, habits, weaknesses, abilities and a decidedly unique sense of morality… he’s by society’s standards a horrible person who has killed dozens of people, and yet he’s so likable and fascinating.
Even the minor characters on The Wire are richly rendered through seemingly minor details that reveal a huge amount about the characters in a short time. Wee-Bey is an assassin who loves to collect fish. Snoop dresses and speaks like a man, but is actually a fearsome female gangbanger. Every single character in the show has small habits and touches that make them unique. There are over 50 major and minor characters on The Wire, and yet I can look at the list of the cast on the IMDB page and I’d be able to tell you in depth who every single one is. That’s because all of those small touches make them memorable.
So if you haven’t seen The Wire definitely, definitely check it out, it’s incredible, it’s fantastically written, and it may just help your own writing.
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I rented the Rockford Files to show my partner in life (she was born in 1974 and hadn’t ever seen it) and had the opposite experience. Except for the lack of cell phones (and the corresponding use of pay phones) it was amazingly timely – and rather fast paced.
I think you’ll find that it varies on these old things, as Mary Tyler Moore is still watchable but Rhoda just isn’t.
I don’t watch any network teevee these days, mostly opting for cartoons (Avatar totally rules, BTW). These have also gotten better, generally, so I’m willing to believe you.
I love “The Wire” I bought Seasons 1-3 DVDs for my husband during the summer and my teen sons, my husband, and I were riveted by the complex sympathetic characters, the rich plots, its breathless pacing. Well, you know I bought Season 4 for Christmas. Can’t wait for my husband to open it. “The Wire” has been touted to be akin to a “literary novel.”
Jay Montville says
Nathan, I used to just like you and find your blog entertaining and helpful. But now, with your praise of The Wire, you have earned my undying love.
The Wire is the best show on Television. Intricately plotted, fully realized, obsessed with authentic detail – in short, OMG, I love it! Many people I know haven’t watched it because “oh, it’s just another cop show,” but The Wire is just another cop show like Romeo and Juliet is just another love story. It’s so much better than that – greater and sadder all at the same time.
Okay, enough gushing. Enough. But I have to ask – Avon or Stringer? Who’s better?
Nathan Bransford says
Avon and Stringer needed each other. Avon needed Stringer’s brains, Stringer needed Avon’s toughness. But in that world, toughness usually beats brains.
Vinnie Sorce says
I remember the first time I saw Dallas and JR. I was like this will never work, he’s an astronaut with a beautiful Jeannie.
I’m unfamiliar with The Wire, but I like HBO series as a whole.
I watch precious little network TV in regards to original programming.
I agree with your opinion on Big Love but would like to add their original series Rome was incredible.
Those characters were iconic and also shown with human frailties as well as tremendous complexities. No one came across as being wholly good or wholly evil. Instead it was filled with political scheming, manipulation, betrayal, changing loyalties, etc.
The series also had healthy doses of full frontal nudity (male and female) and graphic violence.
I’m just surprised it did not receive the acclaim and awards that I felt it was due.
Thank you for your passionate review of The Wire, I shall check out Netflix to add it to my queue.
BTW, if you want to watch a painfully slow television series and wonder how anyone could have watched it, you need to check out Dark Shadows from the 1970s. To think I couldn’t wait to come home from school and watch it.
I happened to see the original series again about ten years ago. Oh my was it painful. It moved at a glacial pace.
I don’t know how much worse it would be by today’s standards especially since I am a big Aaron Sorkin fan and that dialog is damned snappy.
Rent it on Netflix some night with a bottle of Captain Morgan by your side. You’ll need it.
I have to admit, “reality” shows are the thing that finally broke the tenuous ties I had to my TV.
Now, other than the Office (which I have to DVR because it’s on when my writers group meets), the occasional South Park episode, and Big Love (as a Utah resident, I find the show fascinating, a feeling most of my neighbors don’t share), and some History and Travel channel stuff, I really don’t watch much TV.
HBO has done a good job with the series lately, though. If I watch one enough to get into it, I get hooked. I wasn’t a Sopranos regular, but when I watched, I always told myself I should watch more.
As a teen in the Dallas years, all my friends watched and talked about it. I tried to join in, but I hated it. Hated it. I tried. I think I even watched three episodes in a row once.
The only reason I cared at all who shot JR (and. no, I didn’t tune in to find out) was so I could have a new hero. Same was true for its counterparts like Melrose Place, still one of my wife’s all-time favorite shows.
I don’t think I really got sucked in by a TV drama until I discovered Northern Exposure. I also enjoyed St Elsewhere sometimes (The Dante’s Inferno episode was BRILLIANT), but my life didn’t feel less complete if I missed an episode.
Unfortunately, though, reality shows have destroyed just about any appeal TV ever had to me, which, I admit, was never huge anyway, even as a kid. I can’t wait until they go the way of the really chintzy 70s/early-80s game show.
Yes!!! And it´s all about the writing, isn´t it (people??), with folks like George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane contributing episodes …
Josephine Damian says
Nathan, imagine how much more cool Wee-Bey would be if he had jellyfish in a jelly tank 🙂
While I’ve heard “The Wire” is the show to watch, I’ve decided to put off any serious TV watching that involves a long commitment (“American Idol” does not count!) after grad school is over – the Internet is enough distraction. On the top of my watch list is the “Wire’s” kind of parent show – “Homicide- Life on the Street” – they have a nifty boxed set of the entire series, and it’ll be the first graduation present I receive, my first indulgence after these long years of scholastic sacrifice. After I’m done with that, I’ll get “The Wire.”
Change of subject: Nathan, I was going to email that that article in today’s NY Times Book section on free ebooks, and why lots of folks still rather buy the paper version instead. Thought for sure you’d seen it and would blog about it, which is why I did not send it.
I’m glad to see you’re a fan of THE WIRE — just finished watching Season Four on dvd, watched each episode straight through, then with commentaries, then again with a friend who needed some convincing. It’s the best equivalent to Dickens for the 21st Century. But it is a tough sell to modern American entertainment consumers, even sophisticated ones, because it’s so bleak, doesn’t bend over to provide exposition, and requires a real commitment. You can’t just pop in a random episode and have any idea what’s going on.
Note to those planning to check it out on Netflix: start with the first season, it’ll add immeasurably to your enjoyment of the series, it’s the most traditional cops-robbers world and also has the most sympathetic character portrayals, but also sets in motion some plot elements that don’t bear fruition until later seasons (note, for instance, Kima finding the gun on a traffic stop in the very first episode and finding the gun in Chris and Snoop’s SUV in the last episode of the fourth season).
Can’t wait for the fifth season to start in January.
Tina Trivett says
Thanks for the suggestion. Will definitely check it out.
Hi Nathan! Glad to know you’re a fan of The Wire too. We’re in the middle of Season Four now here. You might already know this, but I heard that the creators of The Wire deliberately set out to use a novel structure–novel as in ‘type of fiction’ (as opposed to ‘innovative’). They wanted viewers to have to watch an entire series for it to make sense, and likened watching just one episode to opening a novel in the middle and trying to figure things out from a single chapter.
I love that.
I miss you being in NY, but trust you’re doing well way out west!
Sam Hranac says
Scott – thank you for mentioning Northern Exposure. Dallas was a soup opera aired at night. But Northern Exposure had, humor, tempo, personalities… head and shoulders above what I had come to expect from the jiggly boob tube.
I haven’t seen The Wire. Guess I’ll have to check out the DVDs from our local hip-to-the-need video store.
The Wire really is the greatest. It is the kind of show that takes awhile to sink in. Of course it’s entertaining as it happens, but days later you are still thinking about it and realizing the wonderful subtleties of humor and wisdom and philosophy and REAL HUMAN DRAMA. I love Bunk! I love Omar! I love how Omar talks about himself in the third person. I loved that whole conversation in the 3rd season about the grandmother’s Sunday “crown”. gush gush. We are currently watching season 4 on DVD in preparation for the new one. Go Prez!
Just got back from five hours of picketing at Sony Pictures. Very, very happy to see some excellent television writing being praised here. It means a lot.
Scott – Northern Exposure – oh yeah! Couldn’t that Chris in the Morning pick the music though? Loved that show.
What? No praise for Heroes? Har, har. That show is one of the most awful I’ve seen in a long time and it makes me physically sick when people compare it to great shows like Lost or the Wire.
John Levitt says
The Wire is a great show, astonishing,really. But it would never make it on network TV — not just because of language and subject matter, but because it’s way too complex and layered.
It has a niche audience that loves the show, but if you think the viewing audience in general has grown up, I think you’re fooling yourself.
The Wire is amazing. It achieves something unique, taking TV drama to a whole new level.
After watching season one I read my first Laura Lipmann novel (love her). I now know an awful lot more than I did about Baltimore!
The age thing is stunning to me on this blog :o)
I agree HBO has done some great series work. I was a true fan of Six Feet Under – what a premise – but have to admit that later in its run it seemed pushing the envelope was more important than storyline – but that’s just my opinion.
Yeah network with all it’s reality stuff stinks but you can find some jems like The Office, and if you listen closely the banter on Two and A Half Men never ever fails to crack me up.
It will shift back and we will all say “remember when reality tv took over?” – eventually it will swing back – some day….
My husband and I were turned onto The Wire a few weeks ago by a friend who works in the Baltimore criminal justice system and says it is totally realistic, just the way things really work there.
We have ripped through the DVDs (are halfway through the third season right now) and love it for exactly the reasons you’ve named. I’ve seen a few movies but never a TV show that has so much respect for the audience.
And, the Omar role has to be an actor’s dream come true. Indeed.
Okay, if y’all are talking Northern Exposure and Six Feet Under, comparing it to the Wire, I’ll check it out.
I still miss Northern Exposure. And having now watched all seasons of Buffy and Angel at least twice and searching for something as smartly written, I will try The Wire! Thanks Nathan! (On page 100 of “Spin” and it’s riveting so I trust your taste)
Jenyfer Matthews says
The Wire has some really awesome characters. I’ve only seen the first two seasons but hearing about Avon and Stringer brings it all rushing back quite vividly. Have to look up the next couple of seasons.
I love The Shield for the same reasons – layered and complex. The main characters are not particularly good or heroic and yet you end up rooting for them. Few people are all good or all evil. And the plots? Some are still carrying on six years later…
Loved Northern Exposure and mourned it’s demise. It was ahead of its time.
Stephen Parrish says
You’re right, the character of JR carried “Dallas.” He may seem quaint now, but at the time he represented a fresh perspective on Machiavellian opportunism.
He was portrayed by Larry Hagman, the former co-star of “I Dream of Jeannie,” and those of us old enough to have watched that show enjoyed seeing him in the limelight again.
List of Things Lost says
THE WIRE -yo!
What about THE SHIELD
Mark Terry says
ARound the same time (and yes, I am old enough to have watched Dallas–dude, it was kind of cheesy at the time!) there were shows like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and a little later on, thirtysomething, that had complicated story arcs and strong characterization.
Funny you should talk about this because I started watching The Wire re-runs on cable a few months ago. I’m up to season 4 now. OMG…what a fantastic series. And honestly, I don’t think I could compare it to anything on network TV because of how gritty and dark it is. The story lines are very complicated so I might not be for everyone.
But yes, all the characters are memorable. I felt bad for D’Angelo, cheered for Omar, and watched in fascination as McNulty’s life spiraled out of control.
As for the Sopranos, I’ve only just started watching them.
Love Northern Exposure. I still watch it on DVD. I may be dating myself, but does anyone remember “Thirtysomething”? “Party of Five” wasn’t too bad, either. And for the Anglophiles, there’s “All Creatures Great and Small.” I learned tons about characterization from all of these shows.
J.K. Mahal says
You and I blogged about the same subject on the same day! Did you know The Wire was just nominated for a WGA Award on Wednesday? It’s a well deserved honor. I hope they win.
I’d also like to not that comedy writers are admitting that viewers have brains too. In order to be a comedy up to a few years ago a show had to have a laugh track just in case the audience at home didn’t know when to laugh. Now shows like THE OFFICE, 30 ROCK, and MY NAME IS EARL (which was funny once upon a time)have no laugh track because the viewer is smart enough to know what’s funny without the network telling us what’s funny. That’s largely why sitcoms are dead (though even Scooby Doo had a laugh track for a time).
Jenyfer Matthews says
You know, I agree with you totally, except… I went to a book group this week and they totally wanted EVERYTHING spelled out for them. We read “Five Quarters of the Orange” by Joanne Harris and even though the narrative was told from the perspective of an old woman in her mid-60s remembering something from when she was nine years old, all the members of my book group wanted definitive explanations of WHY this or that happened and WHY this person was this or that way. It was a little frustrating since some of the clues were there if you read thoroughly enough. I guess it depends on how much of a challenge you are up for…
I never watched “The Wire” and now I know why. I don’t like negative stereotypes. For someone who never met people who look like the characters in that show, they would assume this about the entire group. That sounds like a regression of television to me…
Nathan Bransford says
It’s clear you haven’t watched the show if you think people are stereotyped on it.
Nona, I’m going to seriously date myself and admit I was SHAPED by All Creatures Great and Small! Robert Hardy made such an impression; he remains one of my favourite actors to this day. I also read all James Herriot’s novels on which the show was based. It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet is the title that most sticks in my mind.
V L Smith says
Nathan, speaking of online popularity, perhaps you could answer a question for me. I’m a new writer trying to break into the business. I understand that previous publishing credits are a definite plus. I have a few short stories ready to submit, but I wanted to know how agents and editors view e-zines vs. print magazines. If I was accepted by an e-zine, would this be considered an accomplishment worth mentioning in a query or not? I don’t want to make the wrong move.
What I love about the Wire is that I much of the time watching it pausing it and saying to my boyfriend, “what did he say?” “what just happened?” or “who is that guy again?” and yet I love it and can’t stop watching it.