In the opening section of their book which discussed the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Wilcox & Lavery (2002) set out to see how well the show fared against a set of attributes media scholar Robert Thompson felt were exhibited by “quality television”. For this blog post, I will be applying some of these attributes to HBO’s Baltimore set drama The Wire.
The first attribute discussed was one which related to the pedigree of a show’s creator. Wilcox & Lavery (2002) noted that while Joss Whedon’s work prior to the development of Buffy consisted mostly of being a sort of doctor for film screenplays. His pedigree comes from being part of a lineage of television writers who contributed to a number of popular shows of the 20th century. In the case of The Wire though, its creator’s pedigree arguably comes from their past work and experience. Prior to The Wire, David Simon (the show’s creator) was a crime journalist at The Baltimore Sun for over 13 years. During which he released his first novel titled Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. Which went on to win an Edgar Award and was eventually adapted into an award-winning television series that lasted for over seven seasons on NBC (Britannica, 2019).
The second attribute discussed referred to the ongoing struggle of a show’s viability in the eyes of its broadcaster. Whilst critically acclaimed throughout its run, the amount of people who actually tuned in to watch The Wire could be described as middling, especially when compared with the viewership of other HBO shows of the time. With Simon citing a myriad of factors for its low ratings such as the show’s timeslot, or its heavy use of regional dialects and urban terminology that would have alienated some viewers.
The presence of an ensemble cast is also noted as being another attribute of quality television. The Wire featured an expansive cast of actors that included the likes of Idris Elba, Michael B. Jordan and Lance Reddick. Who alongside their fellow cast members played roles ranging from police officers and gang members/criminals which are common place in crime drama and police procedurals, to anything from local politicians and dock employees. Each of these characters are integral in helping accurately portray the various facets of Baltimore life the show attempted to explore. Which in itself lead to the show feeling like a blend of multiple genres at times. Which in itself is another defining aspect of “quality television” (Wilcox & Lavery, 2002). With scenes involving mayoral candidates and state senators giving the show the kind of overtly political undertones you’d expect from something created by the likes of Aaron Sorkin, and interactions between gang members and police giving The Wire its crime drama feel.
Lastly, there is memory. As noted in Wilcox & Lavery (2002), Whedon expressed disappointment over shows such as the X-Files whose characters seemingly forgot interactions or events in prior episodes. Both the characters of The Wire and the show itself however retain memories of past events. And use them to propel story arcs forward. Whether they be the death of recurring characters or a violent altercation. A prime example is the character of Omar Little, the show’s recurring stick up (a form of robbery) artist who enters a seemingly endless cycle of revenge and violence with the show’s focal gangs due to the death of a love interest.
If there is another characteristic to be added to this list. I would say that whether a show is discussed long after its run could be used as a defining characteristic of “quality television”. Something which Buffy fits the criteria for given talk about reboots or its use in a certain course at an Auckland based university. Or in the case of The Wire, its moniker of sometimes being referred to as the “best tv show ever” even to this day.
Augustyn, A. (2019). David Simon. Retrieved September 16, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/David-Simon
Wilcox, R., & Lavery, D. (2002). Introduction. In Fighting the forces: What’s at stake in buffy the vampire slayer (pp. 3-9). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.