I recently finished watching all five seasons of HBO’s The Wire, a critical darling that pretty much no one saw. The show has been lauded by some as the best drama in television history, a level of hyperbole that at first I did not easily swallow but which I’ve come to completely understand. What began as a cop show with profanity became one of the most powerful pieces of social commentary of the last 40 years. And that’s the truth.
When it comes to my relationship with HBO programming, these revelations are beginning to become routine. I’m one of those obnoxious people who all but gave up TV. About seven years ago I stopped flipping through the channels and ceased paying attention to television. Before long I was watching about as much TV in three months as most people do in an afternoon.
A little show called The Sopranos began to chip away at the TV-free habits I had developed. Certainly you remember that it was all the buzz. Practically everyone I knew was deeply in love with the show. Frankly, despite scoffing at all the hype, as a New Jersey native with oodles of North Jersey Italian blood in my veins it almost felt like my duty to watch the show.
So I acquired the first few seasons on DVD and slammed through them marathon style. It turned out the show was warm, funny, and utterly compelling viewing. It was the second time in the prior 12 months that HBO had shown me television greatness, the first being my favorite war drama of all time, Band of Brothers (which I reviewed).
This was television that hit the sweet spot for me. Rather than endless dramas rife with cliches and “episode of the week” stories, these programs offered a larger narrative with a beginning, middle and end. They dealt with adult themes. They could be moving or disturbing. Explicit and intelligent. Their larger budget meant high production values, and both the writing and acting was top notch.
This continued, maybe even peaked, when I grabbed some DVDs and sat down to watch Deadwood, HBO’s now defunct drama set in 1879 Deadwood, South Dakota. From introducing the greatest character in television history (Al Swearengen) to bringing alive a world as vibrant, grim, vivid and distasteful as any I’ve seen, Deadwood was and remains a stunning example of what television can aspire to be. This was more than compelling television. It was a visual novel that was as nuanced as it was loud.
Lavish shows like Rome, the elaborate historical drama made in conjunction with the BBC, only solidified the idea that that HBO was doing more to mature the art of television than any single entity in recent memory. Sure, by this time network television was bringing us quality dramas like Lost (which I have sometimes blogged about), but network television cannot go the places a channel like HBO can go. Network budgets cannot bring to life ancient Rome or bustling Deadwood or the corners of Baltimore the way HBO can.
That was finally made clear when I recently finished watching The Wire. In 60 episodes of television without apology, this show abandoned its purely cop show roots and became a relentless microscope examining corners of our society we don’t like to see. What begins as a police procedural led by womanizing drunkard (but brilliant and driven detective) Jimmy McNulty becomes a portrait in the difficulty in escaping your place in this world; a lesson in how statistics can be lies; a window into how and why even good politicians abandoned their ideals once in office; an instruction manual on how to systematically destroy young lives; and a meditation on the death of the American Dream. Among many, many other themes.
This wasn’t just explicit, R-rated TV. This was smart TV. From Al Swearengen’s blowjob soliloquies to the rise of Augustus, these programs do more than merely add T&A to the entertainment mix. They inspire and inform. They get us thinking. And they turn “mere” television into works of art.
Thanks for that, HBO.
But screw you for not renewing Deadwood.