For a while there has been opinonating from Jim Emerson (Roger Ebert's guest blogger) on the opportunities presented by "long form" dramatic TV:
Movies, due to their limitations of length and inability to plunge freely into the depths of their subject matter (whether that involves the character's thoughts or pasts or whatever the writer wants to throw into his work), are equivalent to short stories in literary terms. Films based on great novels, no matter how well done, always fall short of the source material for those familiar with it. Yet for some reason, ambitious filmmakers are constantly trying to adapt novels, even though they are demonstrably not great sources for films. (Of course, I am making a generalization here--anyone can come up with plenty of what they feel to be exceptions).I've alluded to this before, but it's the writing, stupid. It could be self serving, but everyone from Shawn Ryan (creator and exec. producer of The Shield to Sorkin to J.J. Abrams has talked about the storytelling options writers are given when they have 12+ hours to work with.
Long-form television truly has the potential to give "moving pictures" a novelistic scope. In American television, market forces have previously hampered this potential: the pressure to crank out a highnumber of episodes each year and rake in as many advertising dollars as possible have usually caused declines in focus and quality. What's disturbing about this is that people come to expect their weekly fix regardless of qualtity: I am shocked every time I see someone who should know better whine in print that new season of "The Sopranos" is delayed too long or that "Lost" shows too many re-runs and should have a new show EVERY week. Do they just want it to descend into unwatchable nonsense like "Twin Peaks," "The X-Files," or "The West Wing"?
Combine this with the artistic freedom allowed by cable television, (and HBO's boldness or realization that controversy = substribers - take your pick) and it's really no surprise that cable is the best medium. You can certainly get away with a lot more if you aren't worried about losing ad revenues...
But even with these freedoms, The Wire is exceptional - standing above all but the very best of the Sopranos and the first season of Deadwood (and far superior to, for example, Rome. Cue Yglesias:
It's an extremely demanding show offering no flashbacks and very little exposition despite a sprawling cast of characters and very complicated, years-long plot arcs but the rewards to people who watch closely and pay attention are incredibly large. I don't know anybody who's sat down to watch it and not been incredibly impressed.With time to map out a whole season at a time, the creators are able to maintain consistent themes and put on screen a modern rareity - a three-dimensional character. At times it's heartbreaking, at times bitingly funny. There is also a very strong subtextual commentary about life in a modern American city.
Additionally, they somehow have either the foresight or the pull to cast quality talent in even the smallest of parts, knowing the might be revisted. (See especially the small "Senator Clay Davis" arc in Season 1 and the even smalle "Bunny Colvin" appearance in Season 2, played by standouts Isiah Whitlock and Robert Wisdom, respectively.)
With Season 3 arriving in stores soon and Season 4 starting next month, I cannot recommend this show highly enough.