10 April 2011

The Wire: television-as-novel or television-as-video-game?

The Wire, as a select few of you may know, sits at the very tippy-top of the list of my favourite television programs -- hell, my favourite anythings -- of all time. I, alongside the creator of the show, David Simon, would usually say that it transcends pretty much anything else attempted on serial television to be more like an epic novel in its structure. It is so densely packed with well-rounded characters and situations that compound and build towards exhilarating climaxes, and it takes place on a huge canvas, trying to get at nothing less than the hum and flow of an entire city -- the gritty, real-life port metropolis of Baltimore, MD. Perfectly acted, written, paced, directed, with a cynical, biting sense of humour that deepens its serious, often violent portrayals of urban life, The Wire is especially novelistic in the way its episodes resemble chapters of a book, and the seasons are like books in a larger epic novel.

But in his unconventional yet illuminating and spot-on essay, Jason Mittell argues that The Wire can just as easily, if not better, be compared to the video game genre. He uses a comparison that even further illuminates why I responded so well to The Wire, likening it to an amalgam of Will Wright's simulation computer games Sim City and The Sims -- big-time favourite time-passers of mine from childhood. The attempt to capture all the little things that make a city tick particularly link it to the former game, and the focus on characters and their decisions with regard to the institutions in which they find themselves (the drug trade, police, dock workers, school teachers, city councilpersons) connect it to the latter. Furthermore, the seasons are like "replays" of a game, in that there are certain similarities in plot but with little twists that alter the game. The characters also frequently mention games (especially with regard to their different lines of work) in the show's dialogue.

At any rate, it's certainly an interesting way of viewing the show, and is a seemingly out-there comparison that has surprising merit. The essay is definitely worth a read if you've seen, or are even thinking about seeing, The Wire.

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