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Tapping ‘The Wire’

Jul 7, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The best show on TV is on HBO-but there’s not a mobster, a cadaver or a Manolo Blahnik in sight. TV critics have anointed second-year drama “The Wire” as the best show on TV, according to the 38th installment of TelevisionWeek’s semiannual critics poll.
“The best-kept secret at HBO is that everybody there knows this series is better than `The Sopranos,”’ said Tim Goodman, TV critic at the San Francisco Chronicle. “Not only was `The Wire’ the best show on television during its first season, it hasn’t let go of that title yet in season two. The writing and acting are phenomenal. It’s a shame more viewers don’t know about it.”
“The Wire” jumped to No. 1 from No. 12 in the last critics poll, where it made its first appearance on the list. It edged out NBC’s “Boomtown,” which finished second, by 10 points.
Critics spread out the accolades in this poll, with shows from seven different networks landing in the top 10. Only five shows that were in the top 10 last time returned to the top 10. The highest ranking freshman show was “Boomtown” at No. 2, which was also the only freshman show to make the top 10. CBS’s “Everybody Loves Raymond” was the highest-ranking sitcom on the list and No. 8 overall. And reality shows made a big dent for the first time, with “Survivor: Amazon” and “American Idol” taking two spots in the top 10 (See related story, Page 16).
`Wiring’ the Anti-Cop Show
Critics embraced the complexity of “The Wire,” which features one story over the course of a season. It’s set in Baltimore and shows the inner workings of a city police force.
“So deliberate, intricately plotted and hyper-realistic, this HBO drama is almost an anti-cop show, eschewing the beat-’em-up fantasies of most pedestrian cop dramas to offer a complex meditation on survival in the most maddening bureaucracy on earth: the modern police force,” said Eric Deggans, TV critic at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
“The Wire” was created by David Simon, who spent 13 years as a police reporter in Baltimore before writing the book “Homicide,” which inspired an NBC TV show of the same name on which he was a writer and a producer. Mr. Simon also created and executive produced the Emmy-winning miniseries “The Corner,” based on a book he wrote with Edward Burns, for HBO. Mr. Simon said he intentionally did not want to create a typical cop show where the cops chase the bad guys and catch them before the credits.
“This is more a study of urban America,” he said. “The show is a dry polemic about what has gone wrong in American cities. It really is an angry show in a lot of ways. The interminable drug war, industrialization and what the loss of jobs has done to the city and cities like it is just appalling. We wanted to frame it that way.
“Nobody writes about why people end up where they are. They appear on television shows as drug dealers and killers and they’re just bad guys and the cops are just ennobled. I was a police reporter for 13 years. I didn’t know a lot of dead-on 100 percent-evil sociopaths, and I certainly didn’t know a lot of 100 percent-ennobled public servants. Most of the people I know in Baltimore are in the middle. We wanted to make something that felt as real as the city I covered.”
Four of “The Wire’s” writers, including Mr. Simon, live in Baltimore and the fifth lives nearby in Washington. Mr. Simon and Robert Colesberry executive produce the show.
Because the show is not an easy show to digest, Mr. Simon said he was afraid it might have trouble finding an audience.
“Having worked at a newspaper, I’m familiar with the television critic’s desk, which at any given time is usually underneath about 740 VHS tapes of new broadcasting,” he said. “If you watch 20 minutes of `The Wire’ or even one episode of `The Wire,’ and you believe you have a sense of what the show is or isn’t … I think even a smart viewer can be deceived.”
“I was fearful that a lot of critics would pop in one tape and watch 10 minutes and consign it to just-another-cop-show status. To credit critics around the country, most of them didn’t do that.”
Carolyn Strauss, executive VP of original programming at HBO, said the network was worried that viewers wouldn’t have the patience to stick with the show because it was so dense. She gives viewers and critics credit for finding it.
“It’s very affirming to me that people have come to the show in the way that they have and that critics and audiences have embraced it, because it says that people are willing to be challenged, that audiences and critics are willing to sink their teeth into a challenging television show,” she said.
Ms. Strauss said HBO has not renewed the show yet for a third season, but, “Its prospects are bright.”
`Boomtown’ Tops Broadcast
The highest-ranking broadcast show on the Critics Poll was “Boomtown,” which almost didn’t make it to a second season. Despite winning its time period in adults 18 to 49 the majority of the time against the heavily hyped ABC midseason drama “Dragnet,” “Boomtown” was on the bubble right up until May, when NBC announced its new fall schedule to advertisers-a scenario that mystified critics.
Bill Goodykoontz, TV critic at The Arizona Republic, called “Boomtown” the best new show of the season. “It was absorbing, well-acted fare, and it was ridiculous that it took NBC so long to decide to bring it back.”
Matt Roush, TV critic at TV Guide, ranked “Boomtown” No. 1 in his poll. “A gripping, unpredictable and, most importantly, humane crime drama,” he said. “Unlike the wave of current franchise shows-some good (`CSI’), some growing stale (`Law & Order’)-`Boomtown’ dares to shake up the formula and get under the skin of its primary characters.
“Watching the brilliant Neal McDonough self-destruct or the soulful Donnie Wahlberg balance the job with his troubled family reminded me how good this sort of show could be. It’s not an easy sell, and I worry that NBC moving it to Fridays will be the beginning of the end.”
“Boomtown” won the Peabody Award and was nominated for a Humanitas award.
All the critical praise did factor into NBC’s decision to bring back the show, albeit in a new time slot on Fridays at 10 p.m., said Ted Frank, senior VP, current series, NBC Entertainment. “The critics’ accolades are a part of your general sense that this is a quality show and that in the end quality will work,” he said. “Pound for pound they are just doing fantastic work.”
Graham Yost, executive producer of “Boomtown” with Jon Avnet, agreed that critics can help make a show and helped save “Boomtown.” “There has been a pattern in TV over the past 20 years that if something is a critical hit and you give it a second year, that’s when people start to watch,” Mr. Yost said. “I think the feeling is critical hit, it’s won some awards, people will tune in this year.”
“Boomtown’s” unique structure of telling a story from different characters’ points of view and the strong cast set it apart from other crime dramas, Mr. Yost said. “It allows us to tell stories that might otherwise not get told or we can do them in a manner that we can get deeper in some areas about why people do things, what the effect is on other people’s lives when crimes occur and what are the ramifications and effects in the cops’ lives,” he said.
Unlike many procedural dramas, which avoid showing the personal lives of their characters, “Boomtown” delves into the lives of the cops, district attorneys and detectives who are working on cases. “We are more `Hill Street’ than we are `Law & Order,”’ Mr. Yost said.
Sitcoms Sink
While dramas surged in the critics poll, sitcoms had the worst showing in more than three years. Only one sitcom, “Everybody Loves Raymond,” made it into the top 10 at No. 8. Two new sitcoms-FX’s “Lucky” and BBC America’s “The Office”-made the top 20 list.
“Lucky” (“The true greatness of this series rests with its ability to be stupid-funny one moment and then emotionally resonant the next without a false step,” Mr. Goodman said) finished No.
11, with “The Office” (“So acidic, so funny that it put virtually every comedy on network TV to shame,” said Alan Sepinwall, TV critic for The Star Ledger in Newark, N.J.) right on its heels at No. 12.
Cable was another big winner, with cable shows on three networks taking four spots in the top 10. In addition to “The Wire” clocking in at No. 1, Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” finished No. 3, FX’s “The Shield” was No. 4 and HBO’s “Six Feet Under” was No. 5.
“The Daily Show” was one of the biggest surprises in the poll, rising from No. 20 in the last poll to No. 3 this time around. “Absolutely essential just before, during and after the war in Iraq,” said Charlie McCollum, TV critic at the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News, who ranked it second. “As good as the Stewart show has been in the past, it achieved near-greatness earlier this year.”
Mr. Sepinwall even ranked “The Daily Show” as the No. 1 show on television. “No comedy show was funnier, no pundit show was angrier and no news show did a better job of covering the mockery that was Gulf War II: Electric Boogaloo.”
The winner of the January 2003 Critics Poll, HBO’s “The Sopranos,” wasn’t eligible for this poll, since its run of original episodes ended before January. The No. 2 show in the last poll, Fox’s “24”-which was No. 1 in the July 2002 poll-fell to No. 6 in the current poll.
“24” suffered some backlash for its outlandish plot twists this year, but that didn’t faze all the critics. “Yes, it got silly after the bomb went off,” said The Arizona Republic’s Mr. Goodykoontz. “Who cares? It’s a TV drama, not a documentary. Week in and week out it was gripping, fun television. What more are we supposed to ask from a show? Except maybe to get rid of Kim Bauer.”
`Are You Hot?’ Is Not
The dubious distinction of worst show on TV went to ABC’s reality show “Are You Hot?” “Just repugnant and badly made,” Mr. McCollum said. “Are you stupid? That’s the question anyone who carved time out of their week to watch this garbage needs to be asked,” Mr. Goodykoontz said. “All the worst aspects of reality TV-mean-spiritedness and shameless exhibitionism-were on display in this instant-dud show.”
Reality shows were the target of critics’ ire, with seven of the 10 worst shows coming from the genre. The only scripted series to make the 10 worst list were CBS’s “My Big Fat Greek Life” (“Proof positive that TV never met a movie franchise it couldn’t ruin with a humorless adaptation inspired more by boardroom deal-making than any creative impulse,” Mr. Deggans said), NBC’s “Good Morning, Miami” and Fox’s “The Pitts.”
Fox Out of Hole
Critics also deemed Fox the network with the most improved schedule and ABC the network that failed to improve its schedule.
Fox just edged out CBS as the network that improved its schedule the most, with 41 percent of the vote to CBS’s 38 percent. Tom Walter of the Memphis (Tenn.) Commercial Appeal said Fox had the most improved schedule “because of hitting pay dirt with `Joe Millionaire’ and `American Idol.”’ The Dallas Morning News’ Ed Bark said Fox should be more competitive next year with a Friday schedule of “Wanda at Large” and “Boston Public.” “On paper, the Fox shows look more daringly different and also more diverse than any other network’s,” he said.
CBS was a close second for most improved schedule. “They don’t get credit because they’re seen as the older network,” said Hal Boedeker of the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel. “But they’re strong on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Their Thursday is the best night of television.”
“CBS added strength to strength, which was impressive,” Mr. Goodman said. “Better comedies would be nice, but this is a network with a golden touch right now.”
Hands down, critics labeled ABC as the network that did the least to improve its schedule-with 68 percent of the critics in agreement. “No one handled their schedule worse, put more lousy shows on the air and did as little with their good series as the Mouse,” Mr. McCollum said.
“ABC will not improve until the inept Braun-Lyne regime is swept out,” Tom Jicha of The (South Florida) Sun-Sentinel said. “There isn’t a potential hit in the new lineup.”
NBC finished second, with 19 percent of critics who responded saying the network did the least to improve its schedule. “NBC can’t seem to find decent replacements for its aging sitcoms or to get through a single night without at least one `Law & Order,”’ said Ellen Gray of the Philadelphia Daily News. “And its reality series are, on average, worse than Fox’s, which at least had most of these ideas first.”