Meanwhile...at the Emmys

by Doug Smith

Welcome to the inaugural installment of “Meanwhile…”, a semi-regular column that will take a look at things going on in the world of pop culture outside of comic books.

You may expect ranting, especially in this inaugural edition. Why? Because once again, the Emmys snubbed the brilliant HBO show The Wire, and I’m beyond sick of it!

What’s that, you say? You only come here for comic book talk? Well, OK, let’s hear from some guy named Alan Moore…if you’re a comic book fan, you may have heard of him…

“The absolute pinnacle of anything I've seen recently has got to be The Wire. It's the most stunning piece of television that has ever come out of America, possibly the most stunning piece of television full-stop.”

That’s what Mr. Moore had to say in this interview when asked if he watches any TV.

Alan Moore is a very wise man. Hell, his beard is smarter than you or I. It’s certainly smarter than the Emmy voters. Mr. Moore (and his legendary beard) also had this to say:

“Absolutely, that is grown-up television! It's novelistic. You get to find out about all these tiny different aspects of Baltimore, to build up a huge picture of the city with all of its intricacies — from the wharf side, to the kids in the projects, to the power structure with the boardrooms and police department and governor's office. And it's got some great writers: It's got George Pelecanos and David Simon. And so many wonderful characters, Bubbles, Omar. So yeah, everything else looks pretty lame next to The Wire…this is a timeless, prestige program.”

And when asked if he would ever want to write for TV:

“…if I could think of a good enough story, and if it had a chance of being the same caliber as The Wire — then yes, I would perhaps think about it.”

So, the man who wrote the landmark Watchmen, considered by many to be the greatest graphic novel of all time, as well as classics like From Hell and V For Vendetta, aspires to be as good as The Wire. That should tell you something about the quality of this show.

But the Emmy voters probably don’t care what Alan Moore thinks. And apparently, they don’t care what the vast majority of television critics think either, because in the five years that the show was on the air, The Wire never received a single nomination as the best dramatic program. Not. One. Damn. Time! It was nominated for writing Emmys twice, so it wasn’t a complete shutout. Still, you have to wonder, where was the nomination for best drama? Hell, this year they expanded the “best drama” pool from five candidates to six, and still couldn’t find room for The Wire! That’s adding insult to injury right there. One final twist of the knife, because the past season for The Wire was also the last. Emmy had one last chance to get it right, but they screwed the pooch. Again. I’ll refrain from criticizing the shows that were nominated (even though there are at least two nominated shows I strongly disagree with), and instead focus on why The Wire should have been nominated.

The following are just a few of the reviews from throughout the show’s brilliant run:

”…one of the great achievements in television artistry…the breadth and ambition of The Wire are unrivaled…taken cumulatively over the course of a season -- any season -- it's an astonishing display of writing, acting and storytelling that must be considered alongside the best literature and filmmaking in the modern era.” - Tim Goodman, San Francisco Chronicle

The Wire will knock the breath out of you…literary television that broadens the mind and blows the heart open…a beautiful, brave series.” - Virginia Heffernan, New York Times

”A critic for this paper once declared The Wire ‘the greatest dramatic series ever produced for television’ and as the fourth season gets under way Sunday night, there's no reason to quibble with that assessment.” - Verne Gay, Newsday

”The best show on television.” - James Poniewozik, TIME Magazine

If you go to Metacritic and search on the best-reviewed TV shows of all time, The Wire tops the list, with an average score of 98 (out of 100).

And yet, still, the Emmys can’t deem it worthy of a nomination for best drama. Now, I will admit that the fifth and final season was not the best season of The Wire; that would have been the absolutely heartbreaking fourth season, followed closely by the staggeringly ambitious third season. But even the worst…wait, that’s not the right word, because “worst” implies that it was bad, which it most definitely was not…even the least-excellent season of The Wire was better than anything I’ve ever seen on television. But Emmy can’t find its way to at least saying it was one of the half-dozen best dramas on TV? What the hell?

“The best show... of the last twenty years…it is just fucking brilliant.” - Charlie Brooker, BBC Four

”When television history is written, little else will rival The Wire, a series of such extraordinary depth and ambition…one of the most demanding and thought-provoking series ever to grace television.” - Brian Lowry, Variety

"The Wire is not just the best thing on TV -- it's a Homeric epic of modern America.” - Heather Havrilesky, Salon.Com

Just a nomination, that’s all I’m asking for here. Just acknowledge the excellence of the show. Show some respect. If something else wins, that’s OK with me. But to continually ignore the show…despite the reviews, despite the pleas from the critics that turned into rebukes as the insulting snubs continued…it’s just mind-boggling. The Emmy voters could have given a nomination to the show for its final season, and even though the show’s champions would have known that it was a bit of a lifetime achievement award – like Scorsese finally winning for The Departed when it wasn’t his best work – it would have gone a long ways towards making up for past sins of omission. Hey, it’s not like the fifth season, much like The Departed, wasn’t a worthy candidate.

”A classical masterpiece.” - Laura Miller, Salon.com

”TV’s finest hour.” - Aaron Barnhart, Kansas City Star

”This is TV as great modern literature.” - Matt Roush, TV Guide

Still not convinced? Well, here is another guy who knows something about writing, a fellow named Stephen King:

The Wire is a dazzling three-ring circus of interwoven plot threads, and its take on America's drug war makes Miami Vice look like a Saturday-morning cartoon…it has made the final jump from great TV to classic TV — put it right up there with The Prisoner and the first three seasons of The Sopranos. It's the sort of dramatic cycle people will still be writing and thinking about 25 years from now…The Wire is a staggering achievement.”

The television critics at Entertainment Weekly certainly seem to agree with Mr. King:

“The smartest, deepest and most resonant drama on TV…the best series on TV, period." – Gillian Flynn, Entertainment Weekly

”Certainly The Wire was the best show on the air during its five seasons, and can stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the greatest achievements in series television.” - Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly

EW has long been a champion of The Wire. In fact, in a recent article entitled “Entertainment Weekly’s 25 Biggest Emmy Snubs of All Time”, the continued lack of recognition for The Wire ranked # 11, with this comment:

“…a series routinely hailed as one of the best shows ever on television — if not the best — never even garnered a dramatic series nod? Shameful.” – Alynda Wheat

I guess the Emmys could be forgiven if they had never been called out on this before…they could have pled ignorance…but wait…when the 2007 nominations came out, here’s what Entertainment Weekly had to say then

“…not a single nomination for The Wire in any category. Not one. I mean, seriously — cancel the telecast, go home, and hang your freaking heads in shame.” – Mark Harris

And further back, in 2005, people were asking where the Emmy love was. Variety asked and got some answers…anonymously, of course, but this is what they heard from Emmy voters…

• It's so multilayered, so dense, that it's difficult to tune in midway through the season, thereby making it practically impenetrable to new viewers.

• The plot takes place in the drug-infested streets of west Baltimore, and with the vast majority of Emmy voters based in Southern California, there's little connection. The grim surroundings and coarse language also might turn some people off.

• With the series being shot on location, the actors aren't in Los Angeles or New York, being seen around town and helping build publicity for the show. Out of sight, out of mind.

Those are the actual reasons given by Emmy voters for why they didn’t nominate The Wire. People…that is not acceptable! None of those reasons address the quality of the show, other than to suggest that the show is perhaps too good. Yes, it’s a challenging show, but it’s also a rewarding show if you rise to the challenge! But apparently, Emmy voters can’t do that.

Even as far back as 2003, the year after the show debuted, people were asking these same questions, as seen in this CNN article.

Year after year after year…and Emmy never got the hint.

”If you have only one hour a week for television, give it to The Wire.” - Maureen Ryan, Chicago Tribune

The Wire is as complex a picaresque as one is likely to find this side of Dickens.” - Tony Norman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

”A vibrant, masterful work of art, HBO’s novelistic urban saga The Wire is the best show on television.” - Robert Abele, LA Weekly

And what does David Simon, the show’s creator and executive producer, think of the snubs?

“I don't give a (expletive) if we ever win one of their little trinkets," Simon told Newsweek. "I don't care if they ever figure out we're here in Baltimore. Secretly, we all know we get more ink for being shut out. So at this point, we wanna be shut out. We wanna go down in flames together, holding hands all the way."

Ouch! Maybe Simon’s less than political comments rubbed Emmy’s voters the wrong way. It’s no secret that if you want to win awards in Hollywood, you have to play the political game. Kiss the right butts, shake the right hands, and say all of the right things to all of the right people. And David Simon certainly doesn’t do that. But despite his denials about caring, there’s some real anger there. But he has even more anger when it comes to defending his cast:

"Let me indict Hollywood as much as I can on this one," Simon said. "We have more working black actors in key roles than pretty much all the other shows on the air. And yet you still hear people claim they can't find good African-American actors. That's why race-neutral shows and movies turn out lily-white."

That’s right, not a single acting nomination from Emmy, in five critically-acclaimed seasons. Another not-so-secret theory about Hollywood awards is that people of color don’t win, at least not until Denzel and Halle broke through at the Oscars. I will say in Emmy’s defense that the cast of The Wire is so large, so rich, so brilliant, it would be damn near impossible to nominate just one or two people for acting awards, no matter how deserving, and any perceived racism about these exclusions (hey, none of the show’s white actors got nominated either) is probably not specific to The Wire, but emblematic of a bigger problem. But the argument about the cast being so deep in talent brings up another question: why in the hell don’t they have Emmy awards for acting ensembles? The best TV shows, both comedy and drama, have almost always featured great ensembles. Why not create new categories to recognize such casts? The Golden Globes do this; why not the Emmys?

"The Wire might be the most authentic epic ever on television…cable that can’t be touched.” - Tom Shales, Washington Post

”…some of the most compelling, provocative drama ever produced for television.” - Charlie McCollum, San Jose Mercury News

”One of the finest TV shows ever made.” - Adam Buckman, New York Post

Just the other day, Seth Gilliam, who played Sergeant Ellis Carver, said in a BBC interview, "The Emmys will in no way validate the quality of the material we put out there. We take a little pride in not being nominated."

That’s fine, and I’m not going to tell Gilliam that he should lose any sleep over the lack of respect by the Emmy voters, but the problem is that the very mission statement of the Emmys states (bold text added for emphasis):

“The New York Chapter of The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NY NATAS) conducts activities that cultivate, promote and encourage understanding of, appreciation for, and public interest in the arts, crafts and sciences of television. As a professional organization serving the New York area we endeavor to educate and act as a resource to our members and the industry.

We award the Emmy® for talent and ability in composition, creation, and performance of works which strive to improve the quality of television.

We recognize outstanding achievement, we encourage the pursuit of excellence and promote the highest standards of quality in professional, technical and personal achievement in the arts and sciences of television by conferring the industry’s classic, and most coveted peer recognition symbol of distinction, the Emmy®.”

So let me get this straight: the Emmys are supposed to “recognize outstanding achievement” and give awards to shows that “strive to improve the quality of television”, but have somehow managed to overlook the most critically-acclaimed TV show of the past several years…every single time?


”Brilliant, scathing, sprawling, The Wire has turned our indifference to urban decay into a TV achievement of the highest order.” - Robert Bianco, USA Today

”If there ever was a series that makes HBO a necessity, The Wire is it.” - Melanie McFarland, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

”The best show on television.” - Ellen Gray, Philadelphia Daily News

So has there been any love from other awards? Yes. The Wire was nominated for an Edgar in 2003 from the Edgar Allen Poe Awards, which recognize excellence in writing, and won one in 2007. It was nominated twice for “Outstanding Drama” by the GLAAD Media Awards in 2003 and 2005 (losing both times to Six Feet Under). The NAACP Image Awards nominated it for Outstanding Drama Series after each of its first four seasons, as well as recognizing several individual actors. It was nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Drama by the Television Critics Association in 2003, 2004, 2007, and 2008. Earlier this year, the Writers Guild of America recognized it as the Best Drama for its stellar fourth season.

The Wire was also granted a prestigious Peabody Award in 2004. Here is their mission statement:

”The intent of the Peabody Awards is to recognize the most outstanding achievements in electronic media, including radio, television and cable. The competition is also open to entries produced for alternative means of electronic distribution, including corporate video, educational media, home-video release, World Wide Web and CD–ROM. Programs produced and intended for wide theatrical motion picture release are not eligible for a Peabody Award.

The Award is determined by one criterion – "Excellence." Because submissions are accepted from a wide variety of sources and styles, deliberations seek "Excellence On Its Own Terms." Each entry is evaluated on the achievement of standards it establishes within its own contexts. Entries are self-selected by those making submissions and as a result the quality of competing works is extraordinarily high. The Peabody Awards are then presented only to "the best of the best."

Excellence on its own terms. Yep, that certainly describes The Wire.


Chris Ware said...

One of these days, I'll get around to renting the DVDs.

Mister said...

Chris you really need to give the show a go, it really isn't anything you expect.

Doug, again another well written piece, and it is amazing how such a show like this just doesn't get the respect and attention it deserves. I only heard about it a couple of months ago, and have worked my way through all five seasons. Riveting storytelling, and it shows how great TV can be with the right people behind it.

The General said...

I wish Doug would tell us how he really feels abou the Emmy's snubbing the Wire.

Chris Ware said...

Chris you really need to give the show a go, it really isn't anything you expect.

Oh, don't worry. I'll get to it. It's just a matter of finding the time. At this point, it will be next summer at the earliest because of all the TV I watch during the Fall/Winter/Spring season.

Brandon said...

I also feel like it's a shame The Wire was snubbed again. It was such a brilliant show, and this is coming from a guy who watches next to nothing on television and doesn't even have cable. The writing, acting, and setting are just perfect.

GKB said...

It is extraordinary that the show never won a single award especially when it had the best dialogue, characters, and acting of anything on screen recently. You have to think that it's a consequence of it being such a 'black' show. Until you mentioned it, I hadn't even realised that the acting was superb because it was just so superb! They were amazing - the whole cast was amazing! Season four was my favourite - heart-wrenching though it was - as it really demonstrated the way in which whatever individual choices get made the contexts within which we live continue to shape the possibilities of those choices being made reality. No matter how much those kids might have wanted something different, simply wanting it wasn't enough because the routines and social processes of everyday life conditioned what was ultimately possible. With the ideology of individualism so prevalent in the States, it was really interesting to see something so good which acknowledged the force of social processes as well as the power of individual dreams.

Thanks for the article, it was really excellent and provided me with an opportunity to talk about The Wire - one of my favourite pastimes at the moment!

Doug Smith said...

GKB, I whole-heartedly agree with you about season four. I know that the show is very dense and complicated and can be hard to get into, and I sometimes tell people that if they're feeling brave, they should START with season 4 instead of season 1. Those four kids, who are the heart and soul of the show that season, are introduced in the first ep of season 4, so it makes for a great "jumping-on point" (as we comics fans like to say).

If you can watch season 4 and not feel your heart breaking by the end...damn!

SJ said...

New to your blog, and I just want to say that this was a great article. It's exactly how I've felt about the show being snubbed.

Then again, it can be our beautiful little secret, and we will just feel sad for the people who have never watched it.

By the way, have you noticed how some of the actors from The Wire are getting more roles and attention now in various tv shows/movies? Maybe not big time roles but at least something. I believe there are a lot of fans of the show in Hollywood, especially among writers (it won the award for best written show by writers).

Doug Smith said...

Thanks, sj. And welcome to our blog!

Yeah, some of the actors are definitely getting some attention. Heck, Amy Ryan got an Oscar nom for GONE BABY GONE. And Dominic West was in 300 and that Julianne Moore movie whose title escapes me. Lance Reddick was on LOST and I believe he's in the cast of FRINGE.

And, of course, the producers of LAW & ORDER have always done a nice job of employing David Simon's actors...and vice versa. ;)

Yas said...

Doug that was a powerfully written article. I was already going to get round to watching this (my brother thinks it's better than Sopranos) but your article has got me ready to check it this week.

Great read.

GKB said...

Just thought I'd let you know that I forwarded a link to your article to a couple of friends of mine who've been promising to watch The Wire for ages but haven't got around to it and this seems to have finally convinced them to get their acts together and watch it! So thanks! Agree with you about season 4 - by the end of it I was ready to adopt those kids!

What did you think of season 2? I know some people thought that it seemed a bit forced and that the storyline didn't really flow either with what went before or what went afterwards, but I did think that as a selfcontained whole it was pretty good. It showed how the issue of drugs wasn't simply an issue within the black communities and, more powerfully, it highlighted the death of the white working class in America - the way in which these communities were being squeezed out by processes that didn't take them into consideration in their relentless march forward.

Doug Smith said...

gkb - thank YOU for passing the link around! My Friendly Neighborhood Editor pays me by the hit and every little bit helps!

(Just kidding...)

My thoughts about season two when it began was more along the lines of "Oh, I get it...this show is going to be like WISEGUY, a different investigation every season". Obviously, that wasn't quite right. Season two definitely felt different (even now, it still feels a little bit out of the flow compared to seasons 1 and 3-5) but I think it was important that they do it for a lot of reasons, some of which you mentioned. It also continued the themes of "power corrupts" and was the first time the producers really started to pull back and show us the Big Picture, which was so important in the next three seasons.

The one thing I felt was somewhat forced was the newspaper storyline in season five; that never felt as organically integrated as, say, the school storyline in season four.

Doug Smith said...

That's strange...the board seems to have eaten the last couple of posts, from gkb and myself.

Doug Smith said...