When TV Became Art

Series of the Decade: The WirePhoto: Courtesy of HBO. Illustration by Nick Higgins

On January 16, 2000, Big Pussy slouched up Tony Soprano’s driveway, hiding his terrible secret. It was the first episode of the second season of The Sopranos, and everywhere, on cable and network, artful programming was on the rise. In April, HBO aired The Corner, the precursor to David Simon’s The Wire; in May, Buffy the Vampire Slayer closed its fourth season with the dream-finale “Restless.” In July, Freaks and Geeks completed its single perfect season. Sex and the City was a national sensation, The West Wing had begun the previous fall, Jon Stewart was finding his feet on The Daily Show, Adebisi was murdered on Oz, and Curb Your Enthusiasm debuted, violating the premise that viewers couldn’t tolerate a hateful protagonist. HBO was in its heyday; TiVo in its infancy. As Sinatra crooned over The Sopranos’ opening scenes, it was a very good year.

Of course, 2000 was also the year Survivor debuted, that bug-eating guilty pleasure critics denounced as the apocalypse. On Fox, Rick Rockwell married Darva Conger on Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, attracting 22 million viewers: a faked-up spectacle, starring unpaid unknowns, yielding a massive jackpot.

You could easily memorialize the aughts as the Decade of Reality TV, that wild baby genre conceived in some orgy of soap opera, documentary, game shows, and vaudeville—it was reality, after all, that upended the industry’s economic model and rewrote the nature of fame. Or you could mark this as the era of the legal procedural, or the age of Hulu and DVRs and TWOP. But for anyone who loves television, who adores it with the possessive and defensive eyes of a fan, this was most centrally and importantly the first decade when television became recognizable as art, great art: collectible and life-changing and transformative and lasting. As the sixties are to music and the seventies to movies, the aughts—which produced the best and worst shows in history—were to TV. It was a period of exhilarating craftsmanship and formal experimentation, accompanied by spurts of anxious grandiosity (for the first half of the decade, fans compared anything good to Dickens, Shakespeare, or Scorsese, because nothing so ambitious had existed in TV history).

To recognize how radical a shift this was, you need to recall the easy contempt television inspired for 50 years, back when it was “the vast wasteland,” “chewing gum for the eyes.” Even the greatest TV creators knew enough to be reflexively self-mocking; they labored in a compromised medium, built to sell soap. But as this decade began, it had already begun to dawn on viewers that television was something that you could not just merely enjoy and then discard but brood over and analyze, that could challenge and elevate, not just entertain. And a new generation of prickly, idiosyncratic, egotistical TV auteurs were starting to shove up against the limits of their medium, stripping apart genres like the sitcom and the cop show, developing iconic roles for actors like Edie Falco and Michael C. Hall. As the years proceeded (and technology inspired new styles of storytelling), even network TV could stage an innovative series like Lost. On pay channels, especially HBO, it was a genuine renaissance: Show-runners like David Chase and Alan Ball and David Milch and Michael Patrick King (and his Sex and the City writers) reveled in cable’s freedom, exploring adult themes in shocking, sometimes difficult ways.

The New York Times pretty much lost its mind over The Sopranos, but even in retrospect, David Chase’s nasty masterpiece was a prescient creation, a symbol of what was taking place across the schedule: It was an auteurist twist on a classic genre, featuring a dislikable protagonist and stylistic risk-taking startling for TV (dream sequences, oddball pacing, film-quality visuals). In the last years of the nineties, Joss Whedon attracted a passionate cult following with his very different but equally ambitious series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, freed not by paid cable but by the invisibility of the WB. Blending teen romance with classic horror, Buffy had adult resonance disguised by its juvenile title and lo-fi looks—and it was the precursor to ambitious genre programming including Veronica Mars, Alias, Battlestar Galactica, Whedon’s Firefly, Lost, and True Blood.

Chase’s and Whedon’s very different voices would come to represent the new style of TV making, less sentimental and more freewheeling, willing to alienate viewers, capable of a slow build not over episodes but over whole years—in striking contrast to the slick, interchangeable legal and medical procedurals, the syndication-friendly format that dominated the networks. On HBO, Alan Ball turned Six Feet Under into a stage for questions about mortality. Aaron Sorkin built a liberal holodeck on The West Wing; on FX, The Shield examined the intertwining nature of corruption and heroism. J. J. Abrams co-created the philosophical puzzle-box Lost; David Milch shocked the Western to life on Deadwood; Vince Gilligan interrogated one man’s slippery moral slope on Breaking Bad. On Canadian television (and reruns, thank God, on Sundance), the drily hilarious Slings and Arrows slashed through three matchless seasons from 2003 to 2006. Showtime built its own boutique-cable brand, with naughty series that reveled in dysfunction—the best being Weeds and Dexter (and the loopiest, Ilene Chaiken’s The L Word). The decade of innovation was capped by the rise of Matthew Weiner, another sly, combative auteur inspired and trained by David Chase, whose narcotic Mad Men brought back the watercooler debates of The Sopranos.

These breakthroughs extended to sitcoms as well. When Seinfeld ended in 1998, critics eulogized the genre—but on network, comedies outstripped dramas for sophistication and often emotional depth. The British version of The Office launched the mockumentary sitcom, a much-imitated technique that reflected and parodied reality TV. There were deconstructive sitcoms like the transcendent Arrested Development and 30 Rock; there were self-loathing Hollywood satires like The Comeback. And there were sparkling, multilayered comedy-dramas like Sex and the City, a stylized, easily underestimated series that spoke with nuance and complexity about single women’s lives. Even less ambitious sitcoms became faster and subtler (although not as politically aware as sitcoms of the seventies): Compare How I Met Your Mother to its cornier cousin Friends.

But if there was one show that exemplified the highest aspirations of TV-as-art, it was The Wire. Airing from 2002 to 2008, it was the single best show in the history of television, a (yes) Dickensian portrait of an entire city’s corruption. Show-runner David Simon was a classic aughts auteur: arrogant, grudge-bearing, with a bullheaded sense of artistic entitlement. The show he created never became a pop sensation like The Sopranos; it attracted a cult following. Yet despite the show’s tiny fan base, it symbolized what truly brilliant TV could be. A portrait of Baltimore in decay, the series built, over 60 episodes, a prismatic, mordantly funny, bleak, and enraging universe of drug dealers, cops, pier workers, teachers, politicians, journalists, and do-gooders. Animated by a slow-burn moral outrage, it was grounded in Simon’s experience as a crime reporter. And it featured an astonishingly diverse set of African-American male and female characters, often playing roles other crime series would have reduced to fungible thugs. (Standouts included Idris Elba’s stunning turn as business-student/kingpin Stringer Bell.) But the series’ sneakiest achievement may have been the way it elevated, shattered, and remade the format of the police procedural, spider-webbing that old scaffolding with numberless subplots, bits of crackling dialogue, sickening and subtle imagery. Over the seasons, The Wire generated a sheer narrative density that demanded and assumed an intelligent audience was out there, willing to interpret. No wonder critics kept reassuring readers that the show wasn’t homework: It was worth the devotion it required.

In fact, a series like The Wire might not have found that audience were it not for galloping advances in technology: DVDs that allowed viewers to watch a whole season in a gulp and, later, DVRs that let viewers curate, pause, and reflect. By opening up TV to deeper analysis, these technologies emboldened a community of TV-philes, fans and academics who defended the medium as worthy of critical respect. Online, writers were forced to reckon with their most passionate viewers (and some loopy new critical forms: the recap, fan fiction, “filk”). A show like Lost, with its recursive symbol-games, couldn’t exist without the Internet’s mob-think. But this was true as well for The Sopranos and Mad Men, allusive dramas that rewarded rumination, causing nationwide waves of appreciation and backlash for months after each new episode.

It’s no coincidence that such technologies ran parallel to a rise in structural experimentation. Besides using mockumentary style, many series experimented with voice-overs and other self-conscious tricks, like the real-time countdowns of 24 (the first big DVD hit) and the fantasy sequences on Scrubs. In the latter part of the decade, there was a vogue for fractured chronology, with time-leaps or rippling flashbacks (gambits that echoed the new pausing–fast-forwarding technologies). Sometimes these methods felt gimmicky, but more often, the aughts auteurs expanded the vocabulary of TV while reveling in the peculiar strengths of the medium: 22 hours to tell a story, long-arc characterization, that intimate loop with viewers who watched alone, at home—and then in communion online. Few shows were baldly political, but many explored adult themes. Weiner and Whedon were obsessed with gender and power; Battlestar Galactica explored religion; The Wire took on class, race, and the nature of human corruption.

Television had always been a pleasure, a mass entertainment. It was by nature collaborative, requiring and rewarding compromise from those who created it. But in the aughts, the best TV-makers displayed the entitlement of the artist, a risk in an industry dependent not only on advertisers but on the willingness of viewers to continue to let you in, week after week. When his online fan base howled at tragic plot turns, Whedon argued, “It’s a mandate: Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need.” Chase resisted fan worship of Tony Soprano by grinding our faces in his anti-hero’s repulsiveness. In an interview just before the Mad Men finale, Weiner mused, “You know what, I don’t want to have the tail wag the dog; I don’t want the audience deciding what I do. Because I don’t think in the end they’re the best judges of that.” This doesn’t mean that every nose-thumbing auteur made great TV: Take, for example, Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a tantrum about television, on television. But despite such misfires, there was something revelatory about this personality type, characterologically resistant to people-pleasing, with a bratty—sometimes self-destructive—insistence on a legacy beyond that night’s ratings.

All this would be nothing but thrilling—the tale of a decade when TV grew a spine and a brain—if it weren’t for the possibility that it could come to an end. The network model has crumbled in ways presaged a decade ago, then intensified by the bad economy. Product integration infests even the best series. But it might be a mistake to get too apocalyptic: This decade began, after all, with critics warning that reality shows would destroy TV altogether (rather than, say, revive the art of ballroom dancing). And who knows what the future will bring? During the 2008 writers’ strike, Whedon produced the online exclusive Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog on a shoestring budget. The mini-musical was a charmer, but it was also a stab at a vanguard TV economics, in which creators might sell directly to fans, enabling indie TV to bloom on the Internet.

Will that shift online spur something new and exciting? In the aftermath of this breakthrough decade, that’s what I hope for. Call me naïve, but that’s what I glimpse when I look to the horizon: the next new wave.

When TV Became Art