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Monday, September 29, 2014

"You come at the king, you best not miss": What is The Successor to THE WIRE?

I don't think I'm saying anything particularly controversial when I call The Wire television's greatest drama. Yes, other shows have their partisans - The Sopranos, for its influence and sophistication; Deadwood, for its vulgopoetic mythmaking; Breaking Bad, for its relentless intensity - but The Wire typically appears to be frontrunner. But where The Sopranos' psychological exploration of bad, powerful men has been overexplored in the years since it aired (including by Breaking Bad, which is part Sopranos part The Shield) and Deadwood's strengths are so thoroughly tied to David Milch and the way he uses language and character, The Wire's strengths are both universal (narrative density, research, a strong point-of-view) and almost never even attempted by most popular shows. Indeed, there's only one show on right now that I think measures up to Simon's legacy.

The Wire ended in March of 2008, and became a sensation shortly after cancellation as people began to discover the show on DVD. In September of 2009, CBS began airing The Good Wife, a fairly boilerplate legal procedural about the wife of a politician forced to restart her career in law after her husband goes to jail in a prostitution scandal. While the show had strong characterization and a surprising eye for detail through its first season, it was largely undistinguished. It wasn't until the show's second season introduced a running political plot that The Good Wife really took off; as the series' sixth season gets underway, I feel comfortable calling it The Wire's most obvious (and most gifted) protege.

Now, The Good Wife lacks The Wire's social and narrative sophistication. Where The Wire used the structure of Greek tragedy to give its procedural aspects a terrible momentum, The Good Wife depends more heavily on case-of-the-week storytelling and relationship drama, leaning frequently in its first few seasons on a love triangle that finds our heroine coming to terms with two very corrupt men in her life. It's well handled, but still familiar. And it's also one of the whitest shows on television (though its 6th season is trying to rectify that), with only a single non-white character in its regular cast - Archie Panjabi's firm investigator, Kalinda Sharma. The Wire was about a fairly diverse cross-section of life as it examined how institutions fail those who need them most; The Good Wife is largely about society's most powerful and privileged, though when it does, it's a powerful counterpoint, examining why institutions fail.

But what it maintains is The Wire's procedural and character sophistication. The Good Wife comes in a comfortable package - a legal procedural, each week bringing in a new case - but that is largely to make itself palatable to notoriously conservative network television viewers. Look a little beneath the surface, and you'll find that a lot of those cases deal heavily with the way politics and money co-opt technology and innovation and even revolution, making them all part of a vast, entrenched power structure that invisibly dominates life in modern America.

The Good Wife gets away with it because it is very nearly as adept as The Wire in juggling multiple plots per episode. Typically speaking, each season has at least three running plots (a political one, a legal one, and Alicia's personal life) that will receive screen time in almost every episode. In addition, each episode features a new case, which itself is often broken down into either a legal aspect and an investigation, or into a legal aspect on both sides of the fence. Even a basic episode will typically have these five different stories running side-by-side, which makes for a busy show. And yet, like The Wire, it's a show that knows how and when to use silence and focus on the nitty-gritty of how things get done, rather than racing from shallow point to shallow point.

It is even, like The Wire, notoriously obsessed with accuracy and detail. While it often slips up when it comes to portraying things like conflict of interest, that is largely a matter of narrative necessity; few would watch a show that follows a hundred different lawyers at a dozen different firms. When it comes to dramatizing the law, however, The Good Wife is typically far more on than off. Even FindLaw, an online collection of legal resources meant to assist lawyers and civilians, maintains a blog discussing the show's attention to detail. It also gets good notes from tech sources for the way it treats modern technology, a much-abused subject on network television. Indeed, its unique interest in the intersection between technology and the law has made it one of the only shows to tackle the NSA wiretapping scandal without descending into ill-informed hysteria in an arc running through season 5, the show's strongest season and one of last year's finest overall.

When I say The Good Wife is the best successor to The Wire I've seen - and I'm not the first person to make this argument; Todd VanDerWerff made a similar one after the series' second season, and Alyssa Rosenberg beat me to the punch just three days ago - I don't mean in genre form. There are plenty of people who only watched The Wire because it was cool, because it was gritty, because Omar's comin', something that frustrated David Simon immensely. If you watch The Good Wife hoping that it will match the gritty tension of an urban police drama, you'll find my argument ridiculous.

But if you watched The Wire because of its rich thematic depth, because of its critical examination of power and politics, because of the way it used the comfortable tropes of a staid genre to immerse its viewers in a shockingly complex world... well, then, The Good Wife is the show for you. It isn't The Wire, but then, nothing is The Wire. It is an uncommonly intelligent show that defies and alters your expectations about what the genre can and should do. 

There will always be those who dismiss a show about a middle-aged woman, who dismiss procedural dramas on network TV, who dismiss a show that deals overtly with feminist themes. But as The Good Wife heads into its sixth (and possibly penultimate) season, I think it's important to start paying attention. Procedurals are never going away - they're too tailor-made for TV - but that doesn't mean we have to be stuck with them the way they are now. The Kings have turned a legal procedural into the smartest show currently on network TV, and in doing so, have crafted an unlikely successor to the most cable-y of the great cable dramas.

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