Remember when TV used to consist of crappy quality, relatively low budget, straightforward shows to keep us happy? I don’t know if you’ve watched season one episode of Friends lately, and noticed not only the bad nineties fashion, but the simplicity of the sets, the canned laughs, and the focus on dialogue rather than any stylistic elements. And you’ll notice that artistic direction is almost never even an issue in last decades soaps, dramas and comedies: think Sex And The City, Dawson’s Creek, Buffy, Seinfeld and Law & Order.
But, as you you may have noticed, as our television screens got bigger and film became more accessible, the cinematic qualities in TV have flourished. Take Breaking Bad as an example—everything from Bryan Cranston makin’ meth in his underwear, to the vast landscapes of New Mexico is cleverly and stylistially shot so that it’s like watching one massive movie over a period of weeks. Same applies to some of our faves like Mad Men, and what seems like the only show on TV at the moment, Game of Thrones.
But one series that didn’t capitalise on the cinematic TV thing—and that is touted as one of the best television series ever (big call)—is The Wire. Erlend Lavik, in his video essay above, focuses on the, what I would call, quite nineties-inspired bare style of The Wire. He visually brings to the surface the simple qualities of The Wire—for anyone that’s seen it, this will probably ring true—that make it unlike the most successful epic series of 2000 onwards. For one, it’s shown in a 4:3 format (rather than widescreen 16:9), which is almost unlike anything us Gen Y babies have ever seen, and definitely doesn’t work well on my 15″ Macbook. What were they thinking?
The Wire is how you see it. It doesn’t patronise, it doesn’t show you anything you wouldn’t normally see. It’s not going to pander to you, you have to watch closely to understand. Throughout it’s five seasons, it only uses non-diegetic sound once, uses no narration, works in a linear format, doesn’t include any dream sequences, or any self-consciousness at all for that matter. You are the camera; you are the viewer, no one else.
So, what do we want? Do we want film, or do we want simple TV? Does there have to be a clear distinction between the two? I love good film, but when I have 30 minutes to spare, do I want to watch something emotionally exhausting? Or do I want to watch Alec Baldwin’s perfectly-executed capitalist quips on 30 Rock? I don’t have to emotionally invest in Jack Donaghy, but I always have to stress with Walt—his wife is so annoying, and it’s especially tense at the start of the first season when the bath with the disintegrated body falls through the second floor (so bad).
Perhaps the old television (read: laptop screen) is better because we can have both of these formats—cinematic television and traditional ‘TV’. And we generally don’t have to pay for it either. Best of both worlds? What do you think?