Thursday, March 06, 2008

What is the Greatest TV Show of All Time?

With The Wire about to end, for the second time in a year, we’ve got people mourning the “greatest TV series of all time.” But, does The Wire truly match its HBO brother The Sopranos, how do you measure the ‘greatness’ of a long form work like a TV series? The gang over at The House Next Door have a podcast about Milch vs. Chase vs. Simon, and the question of the greatest TV drama ever. For me, it’s a bit more complicated than just the three shows they’re mentioning because the question of greatest and favorite blur into a kind of messy uncertainty.

It’s always tough to objectively assess art. If I had to talk about the TV show that gripped me the most, the one that had me thinking about it nonstop for the months I was watching it, and cast a shadow over everything else I watched for a long time, it’d have to be Buffy. I’ve never connected to the characters in a show the way I did to those people, I never had so much wrapped up in the character arcs, or such a need to see the next episode. There’s a specific kind of engagement that comes with a long form narrative like that series, and I’ve never been so involved in a series as I was with Buffy while watching its fifth and sixth seasons.

But, as much as I love the series, I’ll admit that it’s nowhere near the level of filmic art that either of the HBO ‘holy trinity.’ The show, with a couple of exceptions, is shot in a fairly straight ahead TV style, with traditional TV score and production values. The acting is beyond traditional TV expectations as is the writing, but in general, the filmmaking isn’t anything special. Whedon may talk about not wanting to do “radio with faces,” but only occasionally is the show not that.

The Sopranos is the most well made show in TV history. The cinematography is gorgeous, and the filmmaking is working in service of the story. It truly is a filmic experience, everything is contributing to the overall thematic push of the work. Chase did a phenomenal job of selecting directors that fit within the show’s style, but still managed to stand out as quality filmmaking. He raised the game for what’s possible with television.

For me, Deadwood isn’t close to The Sopranos or The Wire. I liked the show, but it never really grabbed me in the way the best shows do. There were pieces that I was engaged with, and I liked it all, but it just didn’t do it for me. The Milch show I really loved was John From Cincinnati, which picks up on what Twin Peaks was doing, another legitimate contender for greatest series of all time. What I love about John From Cincinnati is the way it built a universe over the course of the series. That was what Deadwood was about, but I responded more to the modern day angst and lack of purpose, broken by the appearance of this prophet from another place.

Part of what makes The Wire and The Sopranos such vital pieces of art is what they have to say about the world we live in. The Wire shows the state of the under class, which is struggling to survive in a world that’s increasingly devoid of legitimate ways to make a living. The Sopranos focuses on people who’ve “made it,” and explores what happens once you find out living the American dream isn’t enough for happiness.

For me, The Sopranos is more relatable. The mob elements were the hook, but the show is really about the contemporary middle to upper class, and the existential issues they face. I saw my world reflected on screen in Meadow’s struggle to get into college, AJ working at Blockbuster, the struggle to find purpose in a commoditized world. These characters were me or people I knew. Every genre work is about taking real world issues and spinning them into something more extraordinary through the genre’s lens. So, struggling to keep your job and lifestyle stable becomes struggling to keep your crew afloat in a mob war.

The Wire offers a different kind of life, one where people really are trying to survive, not pay off their vacation home. When I was first watching the show, I thought of The Wire’s gang story as kind of a prequel to The Sopranos, Avon and Stringer are like Tony’s father, the people who built “this thing of ours,” the people who the next generation can never live up to. In the later years, things change a bit. The gang life becomes less about accumulating luxury and ascending socially and more about surviving. Marlo has no interest in going legit, he wants to rule the streets, that’s it, no more.

But, which show is better? Which is TV’s greatest artistic achievement? John From Cincinnati, much as I love it, doesn’t quite match the emotional scope of The Wire or The Sopranos. But, I would place it in my all time top ten. Another HBO show that deserves consideration is Six Feet Under. The show is a bit overtly soapier than other HBO shows, but there’s moments in that show that touched me more than anything in The Wire or The Sopranos. Perhaps the saddest image I’ve ever seen in a TV show is Brenda sitting in the Quaker church while Nate is off with Maggie. It probably seems a bit petty to say that’s the saddest thing when you’ve got something like Dukie on the street walking to the Araber in the most recent Wire episode, but everyone’s life matter, and just because she won’t be shooting dope on the street doesn’t mean that being betrayed by Nate like that isn’t as absolutely devastating for Brenda.

I have a lot of affection for Six Feet Under, but I will admit that from a thematic and cinematic scope, it doesn’t quite match up to the other two. Still, much like Buffy, I have so much affection for the characters, I have to give the show high marks. I think there is a legitimate difference between calling something your favorite show versus calling something the greatest show. Buffy and Six Feet Under fall more in the favorite column, things I love more because of my emotional attachment to the characters than because of their inherent artistic quality. That’s not to knock them at all, creating characters so emotionally engaging is a major achievement in its own right.

So, the question remains, which is the greatest TV show of all time, The Wire or The Sopranos? For me, the emotional pull when watching the shows is totally different. In The Wire, the institutions work as a giant force, boxing the characters into awful situations. As the season goes on, we’re faced with increasingly awful scenarios, where characters we love come into irrevocable conflicts and suffer. I’m thinking most of season four’s final two episodes, where a season’s worth of random acts lead the total destruction of many lives. “Final Grades” is just a devastating episode, a legitimate contender for best TV episode of all time. The characters are pushed to the edge, to the point where they have to lash out, giving us those heartbreaking moments like Carver in the car, McNulty hearing about Bodie’s death, the death itself, and the sad fate of the kids.

The Wire is a show about people who lack control over their own lives, who try to do good things, but invariably wind up knocked down and destroyed by a system bent on preserving itself. I think it’s a hugely important show, and extremely relevant for many, many people in our world. But, I personally find The Sopranos more relatable. The Sopranos is about people who do have control over their lives, but invariably wind a way to mess things up, hurt others and do bad things all to help themselves.

The emotional pull with The Sopranos is between our attachment to the characters, our desire for them do the right thing and get out of the life versus the inevitable failure to actually save themselves. The quintessential episode for me is “Long Term Parking,” in which Christopher is offered the chance to run away and restart his life with Adrianna, however, upon seeing a white trash family at a gas station, he decides it’s not worth it. It’s a totally selfish bastard moment from him, one of the critical turning points of the series.

Now, it may be the fact that I’m from a world closer to The Sopranos than The Wire, but I find The Sopranos a more personally relatable show. Both shows have fantastic characters, but I think The Sopranos’ gang, Tony and Chris in particular, are a bit deeper and more complex than anyone in The Wire. Simon frequently talks about how story is paramount, which it might be for him, but its characters who hook me on a show. Ultimately, that’s what makes me give Sopranos the edge.

The Sopranos kept its quality remarkably consistent across the run. I know a lot of people say season one is the best, but for me, it’s either season five, or the final run of episodes that’s the high point. As the show went on, it became increasingly less reliant on story and became an extended look at the psychological troubles of all the characters. I loved that, even the much maligned season six part one plays brilliantly on DVD. “Kaisha,” which I called a disappointing finale when it first aired, was riveting on rewatch. Yes, season four is a bit off, but on the whole, I can think of only a handful of stories that didn’t work over the run of the series.

If The Wire was only seasons three and four, I’d give it the nod over The Sopranos. Those two seasons are about as perfect as any season in TV history, the other three seasons are more of a mixed bag. Season one is pretty great, but a bit simpler than The Sopranos or what follows on The Wire. I have a bunch of issues with season two, it’s still great, but the inevitable tragedy of Frank Sobotka just felt too one note next to the moral complexity of season one. Season five feels a bit hurried, and has the good, not great newspaper storyline hanging over much of it. It’s still absolutely amazing on the whole, but when you’re talking about the greatest show of all time, absolutely amazing with some flawed bits might not be enough.

And, from an artistic point of view, I think The Sopranos did more interesting things with film as a medium. The Wire is a wonderfully shot and acted show, it does exactly what it set out to do. But, I love the psychological craziness of an episode like “Fun House” or “Join the Club” and The Wire doesn’t have any equivalent. It wouldn’t fit in the universe they created because The Wire is all about showing the whole. It’s about showing the complex interactions of the city, but in many ways, a single human brain is more complex than this organism we call civilization. It’s an endless mystery, and I don’t think any show did a better job of exploring it than The Sopranos.

But, that’s not to diminish what The Wire does at all. The two shows are the definitive cinematic statements of the early twenty first century, a chronicle of a post 9/11 world. When people think about this era in film history, they won’t think about the movies, they’ll think about these two shows.


Aaron Strange said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron Strange said...

Been lurking on your blog for months now, but I'm inspired by your question. I'm only halfway thru the third season of "The Wire" (& avoid your episode rundowns) but I find it altogether more compelling a work than "The Sopranos." Although the first season of the mob show was some of the tightest, most sophisticated storytelling ever on TV, I felt like the mob show never quite delivered on what the first season promised. Subsequent seasons were phenomenally rich, but they also sprawled, they noodled, & increasingly, they lost momentum & left plotlines dangling. While Tony's anti-heroic actions played superbly off the inherent desire we have to sympathize w/ protagonists (& Gandolfini gave the best *perf* ever on American TV, except maybe for Edie Falco), they anchored the show to a conventional structure centered around a protagonist. His arc & failure to change is essentially tragic - even if he doesn't get offed post-blackout.

I think you're also giving short shrift to "Buffy". Despite its production values (which were constantly stretched & challenged), it tells a full arc, a bildungsroman with a feminist slant. I think that, like "The Sopranos", it loses a bit of focus in the final two seasons. But it constantly emphasizes (& interrogates) complex themes of cooperation & solitude, destiny & freedom of will, as well as exploring complex psyches thru difficult choices (love & death, natch). Most importantly, it strikes a tone that's rare, balancing romance, melodrama, comedy, tragedy, & horror (oh, & rock musical) into a seamless tone. And while its cinematography wasn't cinematic, it *was* expertly televisual, esp. in those episodes that Whedon directed. Is it better to excel within the medium or to ape one with more established claims to high art? I also think it's unfairly discriminated against because it deals with teens instead of adults -- as if the problems of teens are less human than those of grown-ups!

But much as I love "Buffy" & "The Sopranos" (I've only watched the first season of "Deadwood") I gotta go with "The Wire." If "Buffy" is TV par excellence, & "The Sopranos" has pretensions toward cinema, then "The Wire" aims even higher, to the 19th century novel. And it hits the mark. It's natural to compare it to books like "Bleak House" & "War & Peace," which dramatize social frameworks in an attempt to take in all humanity. They have de-centered structures, built around a culture & its vectors of organization, not around a traditional (anti-)hero. But they (& "The Wire") keep the old engines of drama running, through deep character, twists of plot, & (hopefully) a transcendent sense of resolution. I don't know a long-form TV show that's attempted so much or succeeded so thoroughly. Next to "The Wire", "The Sopranos" & "Buffy" seem conventional.

Then, of course, there's "Battlestar Galactica," the only show to talk truth about the War on Terror (besides Jon Stewart & Stephen Colbert). Any love for "BSG"?

Patrick said...

I am a big BSG fan, but I feel like the show is too inconsistent to be considered for the very greatest title. The four 'Iraq' episodes from the start of last season are as good as anything that's ever aired on TV, so incredibly powerful and satisfying. But, for every great episode there's a few that are just good, I frequently feel like they phone it in during the middle of the season, saving the great stuff for the beginning, end and middle cliffhanger. It's frustrating because there's so many characters, there's no need for these pointless standalone eps, but they keep doing them.

I don't know that I'd call Tony's arc tragic. In some respects, yes, he doesn't change, but in the end, he gets pretty much what he wants, his kids are doing okay, and they're both part of 'the family.' The issue is, on some level, he always wanted to be something more, and doesn't achieve that. But, I think he finds a kind of peace in the end.

Buffy is a very rich series, and I do consider it my favorite. If every episode was the caliber of the ones Whedon directed, or as well directed as your average HBO series, I think it'd be unquestionably the greatest show of all time, but a lot of the directing and scoring wasn't that exciting. But, in terms of writing and performance, it's as good as The Sopranos or The Wire, and I got more joy out of 'Restless' or 'Once More With Feeling' than anything on those series.