Arts & Culture

Wire Transfer

David Simon’s The Wire is at the vanguard of a storytelling revolution that is changing the way we watch TV

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• 2,447 words

In the pilot episode for Dexter, one of television’s most unconventional series, a seemingly decent police forensics scientist, played by Six Feet Under’s Michael C. Hall, leads an unspeakable double life: he’s also a serial killer.

Within five minutes of episode one, we watch as Dexter kidnaps and takes his first victim to meet the faces of the children he is accused of molesting and murdering. Dexter has kindly dug up the kids from their makeshift graves himself.

“Children,” Dexter confesses to the man. “I could never do that.”

“Why? ” the man replies.

“I have standards.”

With that final proclamation, Dexter proceeds to cut the man to pieces, disposing of him with a clinical efficiency befitting a forensic scientist. By the end of the pilot, one comes to the conclusion that Dexter is actually quite an affable chap. Rarely has a mass murderer been portrayed so sympathetically.

When Dexter returns to paid Canadian television on the Movie Network at the end of September, it will help herald one of the most original periods we have seen on the small screen in decades—perhaps ever.

In a race to declare the death of one mass media fad and the beginning of another, many writers have rushed to recite the eulogy for traditional television. Yet for all their bluster about the mobile revolution and the future being on YouTube, the vast majority of North Americans are still getting their nightly entertainment from television. According to a 2006 Nielsen Media Research study of audiences in the United States, the average household actually increased the amount of time it spent watching traditional TV by more than twenty minutes last year. Nonetheless, the technological changes that have facilitated “television on demand,” combined with the proliferation of portable wireless devices, portend a shift in the way television is viewed that may ultimately make television an even more appealing medium for serious writers, directors, and actors. Ironically, it may be the iPod and iPhone generation that pushes television over the threshold into an authentically literary art.

This winter, television aficionados will welcome back for the final time one of their most treasured hbo programs: The Wire. As you poll the fawning media coverage for the show—a writer for the New York Times claimed that “if Charles Dickens were alive today, he would watch The Wire, unless, that is, he was already writing for it”—you realize immediately it deserves to be placed in the pantheon of great television.

The Wire is based on the stories and experiences of a former homicide detective and schoolteacher, Ed Burns, and a crime reporter, David Simon, both of Baltimore. Its theme is that the life cycle of violence in this neglected city extends from one generation to the next, fed by one big dysfunctional family: the education system, the police force, a corrupt and divided political culture, and the war on drugs. The show’s final season will examine another element in this life cycle—the media.

Since its premiere in 2002, The Wire has developed a small but fervently loyal following, but for David Simon, the show’s creator, this “appreciative few” is an odd blessing. On network television, The Wire’s numbers (4 million people watched at least one episode last season) would virtually guarantee its cancellation. Even still, while hbo, partly on the strength of the phenomenal success of The Sopranos, continues to provide a safe house for creative programming, only one-third of American homes subscribe to its services. Most have to wait, like many Canadians, for hbo shows to be picked up by a mainstream cable channel, as the a&e network did when it began airing the entire Sopranos series in a severely edited form last January.

Relief for niche programs like The Wire seems to be on its way via the web. Advances in on-demand services available through the Internet are beginning to deliver new shows directly to any computer with a good connection speed. And to entice users to test out their services, networks like hbo are beginning to offer shows on demand before they air on television. It is one part marketing strategy, another part positioning for the future. For instance, the new AppleTV, the first of many such devices to come, allows users to wirelessly connect their computer to their television in order to stream digital content from the iTunes media library or YouTube. The idea is that users will be able to bypass the traditional top-down network schedule and take control of what they watch and when they watch it.

To David Simon, this means making the latest episode of The Wire available on the Internet, often before it appears on television. But while Simon is thrilled at the prospect of increasing his show’s reach, he says it doesn’t solve his fundamental frustration with how stories are being told. Traditional TV storytelling employs a formula that has held a grip on the wider television world for many years, and this is one of the very reasons why The Wire remains so inherently problematic to mainstream network executives and audiences. Simon calls it the most oversold idea in television: redemption within the hour.

Driving the narrative structure of a typical drama is the understanding that it must neatly package resolution into easily understood clichés and conclusions. Failing to do so means that a show runs the risk of outrunning the limited attention span presumed to afflict the average viewer. More truthfully, it imperils the association with advertisers who refuse to buy time on a program that doesn’t meet such emotional expectations—you can’t sell products if you don’t know where to insert a commercial every six minutes. Unlike those of mainstream dramas, The Wire’s narrative structure operates like a taunting dare; just try to find a break. “If people think that they can do laundry and eat popcorn and watch television,” Simon said in a phone interview, “then that’s how they will learn to accept their entertainment.”

To craft his stories, Simon employs an almost ruthless damning of characters and plot lines. In season four of The Wire (spoiler alert), he introduced a group of high school friends—Dukie, Randy, Michael, and Namond—all of whom experience the bleak brutality of the Baltimore streets to differing degrees. It is Simon’s best season yet, enhanced by the incredible performances of his new cast members. The season finale brought virtually no relief to their plight, as we witnessed the splintering of the group once and for all. A promising character like Dukie succumbs to the lure of the streets and starts selling crack, employed by his friend Michael, now a foot soldier for the neighbourhood’s drug baron, a soft-spoken but homicidal father figure called Marlo Stanfield. Randy has been forced into a group home after his foster mother’s house is firebombed, the consequence of his alleged “snitching.” The only hint of good news is Namond’s bittersweet flight from the ghetto home of his crime-peddling mother to the modest household of a guidance counsellor. As for season five, Simon offers no assurances that any of the characters will return; this chapter is over; life moves on.

Not surprisingly, Simon is known as something of a renegade within the world of television. After all, he didn’t exactly aspire to a career in serialized drama. He was a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun for four years before taking a break to write a book. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets was optioned by nbc and turned into an acclaimed series that spanned the 1990s, thus beginning Simon’s ambivalent deal with the devil. But despite the money that comes with success, Simon has remained a strident outsider, refusing to live or work in Hollywood, preferring instead to stay in the town he knows best. “The impetus for The Wire is that we are all journalists, we have very little to do with Hollywood. Most execs wouldn’t know where Baltimore was unless their plane crashed there on the way to Paris.”

While he has produced only two franchises and one miniseries for television, Simon is credited by critics with having reinvented the conventions governing the contemporary cop drama, long considered the golden egg of prime time. As with The Wire, the city of Baltimore was cast as the central character in Homicide, and both shows took pains to blur the lines between the bad-guy-as-villain and cop-as-saviour. In Simon’s mind, both are flawed. To some extent this became the inspiration for Homicide—to free cops from the confinement of their presumed character. The show became a critically loved urban drama, albeit one that struggled to hit big with audiences in the ratings. Nonetheless, Barry Levinson’s visual direction pioneered the hand-held camera style that would later be emulated by dozens of cop shows, including the more successful but less daring nypd Blue.

Simon followed Homicide with another show based on one of his books. The Corner, co-authored with Ed Burns, was turned into a six-part miniseries that chronicled a year in the life of a drug-dealing intersection in Baltimore. Where Homicide and The Wire truly differ from their cop-show contemporaries is in their focus. While most police dramas depict crime as an issue of right and wrong, black and white (sometimes quite literally), The Wire’s mantra is to go deeper to examine this life through an often forbidden but more accurate lens. “The next frontier is class,” he says, “how money and power wrap themselves together. We treat race in a half-handed manner but class always matters.

“A lot of guys big in TV say that you couldn’t design a show more problematic than The Wire,” Simon confesses. “They will say, ‘We want to be in the David Simon business but not with David Simon. We’d like to do The Wire with more whites, bigger tits, and blow shit up.’ But who cares?” In the end, Simon has ignored the numbers and pushed ahead with his other ambition: to remake television into literature, or something close to it.

The Wire’s unfolding style has been called the closest thing to a novel on television. As Simon tells it, that literary style is by design and aided by the lack of commercial interruptions on hbo. With fifty-eight minutes, he realized the ability of television to emulate good prose. “Planning the exposition is a graceful act in all prose and most serious film but it is awful in television. The people I meet who want to get into hbo are all authors. They see six to ten hours of TV without commercials and realize they can do something like a novel. They never believed that TV could be literate that way before.” The novelists seem to have caught on to Simon’s plan. Acclaimed crime writers like Richard Price and George Pelecanos write for The Wire.

These are indeed heady times for lovers of good television. If David Simon has his way, a wholesale change in how we watch will take place. The concern, of course, is whether anyone will see it. While households’ viewing time is increasing, television is experiencing the kind of distribution shift that happens only every decade or so. If you believe the media hype, this is either the doomsday scenario pundits have been talking about or the beginning of a renaissance.

The best way to illustrate this is to examine “sweeps week.” Conducted by Nielsen, the exercise samples television viewing habits four times during the year. The company distributes diaries to a sampling of American viewers in order to record what they watch. The diaries are then collected by Nielsen and analyzed. From that data the company calculates ratings for individual shows. If the ratings are good, then network executives can raise advertising rates for those programs. The flaw in this sampling system, however, is that it does not take into account the proliferation of digital video recorders here in Canada and TiVo in the United States. These devices allow people to record their favourite programs, store them, and watch them whenever they want. Beyond the on-demand appeal of TiVo and other dvrs is the ability to fast-forward past commercials. The problem for television executives is that if viewers aren’t watching shows during their regularly scheduled times, it is difficult for a network to measure a show’s audience reach and thus to set advertising rates.

This past spring, Nielsen revealed that virtually every major show on most of the networks set a record for low audience numbers. From Lost to Desperate Housewives, csi: Miami, and even the ever-popular 24, everyone suffered. More troubling was the fact that surefire franchises such as American Idol had their worst ratings in years. But had dvr use been factored in, those numbers would have been significantly higher. A recent study by Solutions Research Group in Canada concluded that seven years from now, viewers in the eighteen-to-thirty-nine age group will consume 80 percent of their TV on demand through an assortment of broadband, dvr, iPod, and other on-demand platforms. In other words, what is referred to as “time-shifting” is blowing the traditional ratings game to bits. In the process, the business of television is trying to make a financial case for some of the best shows it has produced in years.

To combat this, more and more shows are also offering new episodes on demand through the Internet ahead of broadcast air dates, and the move to support an on-demand service is proving to be a boon for shows like The Wire. hbo was one of the first networks to experiment with this approach to gauge the appetite of viewers who might use it. Seeing an opportunity to reach out to their cult audience, hbo picked The Wire as their test trial and discovered something quite remarkable. When given an opportunity to watch the season finale on demand before it aired on television, 750,000 people jumped at the chance. The lesson for Simon was that despite all of the choice on television and the web, viewers will go out of their way to watch a difficult drama about broken-down Baltimore—and pay for it, too.

“The future of American television is going to be like your lending library,” Simon speculates. “Downloads are the future. Nielson ratings will mean nothing. Watch what you want when you want to. The measurement of a show’s popularity will be downloads. Appointment television is being killed, and it’s a good thing for storytelling.”

Of course, if the experiment fails, Simon has an escape plan.

“I will go back to books.”