I just finished watching the first season of The Wire and so far it has lived up to the great reviews. It is a smart reinvention of the well-worn police procedural infused with authenticity brought to it by creator David Simon's years as a Baltimore Sun reporter and his collaborator Ed Burns' experience as a Baltimore homicide detective.
I was throughly impressed with the show, but then I made the mistake of listening to Simon's commentary track on the DVD. The commentary is half great insight and half self-congratulatory pretension in which he talks, without irony, about "deconstructing the mythology of the police procedural" and congratulates himself on challenging the audience by making them pay attention to small details in order to understand the story. He uses the classic argument of the creator of the low-rated critically-acclaimed show that they are victims of the Pavlovian lowered expectations of the TV viewer.
Simon does not seem to be aware of other serial dramas such as Lost and their HBO mate The Sopranos, which have attracted large audiences while demanding that the viewers pay attention. Now that TiVo and DVD can allow us to watch TV the way we would read a book, picking it up whenever we want and not having to be home every week at a specific time, we finally can dedicate ourselves to more complicated stories.
But I digress. The point I am coming to here is that, in his self-praise, Simon compares the show to a novel, in order to separate it from "mere" TV, which must be wrapped up neatly in an hour. This goes to the heart of an idea that I have been kicking around since the finale of The Sopranos and which finally crystallized itself while watching The Simpsons Movie a few weeks ago.
During the run of The Sopranos, critics often praised it by comparing it novels and films, once again to save it from the epithetic designation "TV show". The problem is that, somewhere around the show's fourth season, David Chase began buying his own hype and set out to create something that would not just be a great TV show but would be the 21st-century version of the Great American Novel.
And that is the exact moment the show went off the rails. Why? Because The Sopranos cannot be a great American Novel anymore than The Great Gatsby can be a great work of Elizabethan theatre or Hamlet can be a great work of epic poetry. In other words, Chase was suffering Medium Inferiority Complex. Just like the novel and the theatre did before it, TV is still fighting the stigma of being a deliverer of mindless entertainment as opposed to true art. He wanted his work to be associated with more respectable forms, so he emulated them.
However, a work cannot be truly great unless it fully understands and embraces its medium. Elizabethan playwrights tried to emulate epic poetry, and we got Troilus and Cressida. Hamlet stands as the masterpiece of theatrical art because it can be nothing but theatre. It is both a philosophical examination of the nature of man and a bloody good revenge tragedy (which, of course, subverts the conventions of the revenge tragedy). The Great Gatsby works in a similar way. It can be nothing but a novel.
Which is why The Sopranos will go down as a great experiment, but not the masterpiece of the television medium. No, for now that title still belongs to The Simpsons. The Simpsons not only understands its medium, it seems to have digested the entire of history of television and the 20th-century pop culture to which it is inextricably linked. The Simpsons Movie solidified this impression. It is an enjoyable celebration for the fans, but would not be a great movie without the 18 years of history we have with these characters. That is because The Simpsons has embraced TV's greatest asset - the ability to create complex characters that we get to know like our own family - and taken it to new heights, making us care about a group of crude, yellow-skinned drawings. It succeeds as a TV show while subverting everything we know about TV shows.