THE WIRE: Ambition and Limitation

Not actually David SimonDavid Simon interviews always have something interesting in them, because the guy doesn’t talk like a Hollywood screenwriter (unlike, say, Alan Ball, who has internalized every cliché that Hollywood types mistake for profundity). His new eight-page interview with Vice Magazine is a particularly good one, containing — in equal measure — insights into why The Wire was so great and why its reputation as the Greatest Achievement In the History Of Anything might be a tad overblown. One moment that provides both insights simultaneously is where he talks about one of the things he did that conventional TV shows don’t do: he would not change his plan for the show in response to the unanticipated success or popularity of a character.

I’ve always wondered how much of a character’s ultimate arc was known to you and how early it was known. For instance, did Omar always have to die? Did Carcetti always have to become governor? Was it just built into their DNA as characters?
It was. It was built in. You have to know where you’re going and one of the things that television in particular, more than film, certainly more than prose, suffers from is that there’s so much money in the product that once you get an audience, once you achieve an audience, your job is to stay in that audience ad nauseam.

Meaning what?
Meaning if they love Omar, give them some more Omar. If they love Stringer, give them some more Stringer.

Yeah. It’s not like they were going to kill Ross and Rachel on Friends.
Right. And they’re never going to kill David Caruso on whatever show he’s on, whichever one of the CSIs.

Or even Tony Soprano.
Well, you know.

That’s debatable, I guess.
But ultimately, if something is all about character, then character has to be served at all costs.

That’s as good a summary as I can find of the difference between The Wire and most television series, even most HBO series (like the more traditional Sopranos). Most TV series are about character, more than theme or plot. The average show will change its overall theme, or the type of stories it does, as the actors grow into their characters or certain characters become more popular. (To put this in as lowbrow a way as possible: most shows are looking for their own Urkel. If they find an Urkel, they will revamp the show to focus more on him, no matter what they originally pitched to the network.) They might kill off a character to upset us or surprise us, but we always know that the reason we’re watching is to see the people and what they’re up to. This type of character-based television is fine, but it’s absolutely inimical to the kind of thematically ambitious storytelling David Simon prefers; if you start changing your plan to accommodate the characters, then you wind up with a show that has no clear theme and no clear ending.

So while the characters on The Wire are great, they are subordinate to the showrunner’s plan, just as the whole show is about people who are caught up in larger forces that are beyond their personal control. Lost, the closest thing the networks have to Wire-style storytelling — on a more superficial level, of course — is a bit like that too. It’s the opposite of most great shows, where the writers follow the characters where they want to go, and re-think their approach to scriptwriting based on what the actors do (and how the audience is responding). That model is also, it need hardly be said, a more commercial model, since it allows the writers to find an artistic justification for doing what the audience wants. If you’re doing a show with a rigorous overall plan, like Simon does, then it’s disastrous to pay more attention to a character just because the audience likes them. But if you’re doing a show where the plot and theme are very loose, and most of the interest comes from character, then the popular thing to do is sometimes (not always) the artistically right thing to do.

My own attraction is toward the looser, baggier model of letting the characters take you to new places and de-emphasizing the didactic series-long plan. But both models are obviously justified. If we’re talking about TV in terms of novels, then the traditional TV show is a bit more like the Victorian novels of Anthony Trollope or the early Dickens, “loose and baggy monsters” where the author would start the book with only a vague idea of how it would end, and where major plot details and character motivations might be changed depending on how the book was doing in serialized form. (When Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit was doing poorly, Dickens added a new subplot where the title character goes to America, and abandoned much of his intended theme about the hero’s selfishness.) A show like 24 is comparable to, say, Wilkie Collins, someone who subordinates both character and theme to a complicated plot. And David Simon is trying to do more of a Russian-style novel, where there’s a broad historical-political theme that hangs over everything, and where we’re concerned with something much bigger than the fates of a few individuals. No wonder he doesn’t like all the comparisons to Dickens; if Dickens were alive today, he’d be writing sitcoms. Simon is not only trying to do novels for television, but a particular kind of novel.

I will end this longish post with a longish quote from Anthony Trollope, explaining why he’s not interested in plot-heavy novels. Think of this as the creator of character-based dramas complaining about 24; he’s not talking about the English David Simon, whoever that might have been. But still, it’s a nice bit of justification for loose, go-with-the-flow construction.

When I sit down to write a novel I do not at all know,
and I do not very much care, how it is to end.
Wilkie Collins seems so to construct his that he not
only, before writing, plans everything on, down to
the minutest detail, from the beginning to the end;
but then plots it all back again, to see that there
is no piece of necessary dove-tailing which does
not dove-tail with absolute accuracy.

The construction is most minute and most wonderful.
But I can never lose the taste of the construction.
The author seems always to be warning me to remember
that something happened at exactly half-past two
o'clock on Tuesday morning; or that a woman
disappeared from the road just fifteen yards
beyond the fourth milestone.

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