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[revision] the tv pyramid: the wire vs. southland

Southland

I do my best to eat healthy. But sometimes, I’ll discover something that I was never allowed as a kid and buy a lifetime’s supply (Nutella), or maybe just fall into a pit of addiction and eat the same thing for every meal for weeks on end (bacon pancakes). Balance is an important thing, and sometimes it can be difficult to resist the overwhelmingly large percentage of deliciously-bad-for-you crap out there and make the extra effort to prepare a nutritious dinner for yourself. But at the end of the day, it’s worth it.

If I’m going to devote 20 or so hours of my life to something, I’d like to be able to look back at that time and think, “yeah, that was worth it. I got something out of that. That wasn’t a complete waste of time.” When I think about the 60 or so hours I spent watching and re-watching The Wire, I don’t consider it time wasted. Yes, I’m about to sound very white and naïve, but I genuinely felt that I had been edified by the end of it. I felt I understood more about the drug trade, about American institutions, about the nature of policework. This is leaving aside questions of realism and accuracy; this is simply feeling enriched by a work of art.

On the other hand, I just finished watching Southland, a pretty top-notch cop show that started on NBC in the U.S. and then moved to basic cable channel TNT for seasons three to five. This is a meat-and-potatoes policing show, mostly accompanying beat cops at the moment when they roll up to respond to a call. You have no idea what to expect—a hilarious misunderstanding, or a gunfight that kills off a main character? It’s an excellent action show, thrilling minute-to-minute, and not without its fair share of cute insights into the nature of street-level policing, as opposed to the usual game of intellectual cat-and-mouse played by detectives and master crims in most other cop dramas. The thing that Southland didn’t have was real long-term storytelling. It also didn’t have a whole lot to say about the clusterfuck of crime and poverty that is South Central Los Angeles aside from “thank god for the boys in blue.”

I basically put this down to the fact that it’s a network (free to air) show at heart. The Wire, however, is a cable (pay TV) show. By this point the difference between premium cable and network programming is pretty apparent to anyone that watches TV. We’re in the midst of a golden age of serial drama, with HBO, AMC, Showtime et. al. releasing a plethora of satisfying, expansive, intelligent and well-produced shows that have everyone talking about that one crazy episode of Game of Thrones or how gnarly Breaking Bad‘s fifth season is going to be. Meanwhile on NBC, The Office is floundering after two seasons without its main character/star, and Community is barely drawing breath in its fourth season. What we’re talking about is the difference between nutritional TV and fast food TV.

Network shows, even the excellent ones like Southland, are still limited by the nature of their format. They have to break for ads every 10 minutes, which means they have to have a life-or-death cliffhanger four times per episode, (hence—as neatly explained by Game of Thrones director David Petrarca—most network shows are about cops or firemen or hospitals) to keep you hanging on through the ads. They’re restricted in content (one foot on the floor during sex scenes, please). And they pander to a much larger audience, meaning that they ultimately have to be as bland and comforting as possible in order to stay alive. So even a gritty, brutal cop show like Southland still has to return to the status quo at the end of each instalment, has to keep the same few characters in rotation through the same kind of situations for 60 episodes. And it’s so easy to watch just one more; because they’re not really filling. The promise of another hit is too much to resist, but as soon as the buzz dies down you’re left with nothing except the craving for another.

And yet, we keep watching. Even though a few clicks away (of the mouse or the remote, depending on how scrupulous/moneyed you are) lies The Wire, whose characters rise and fall and die and leave and return, whose style and settings and tropes change and evolve. Because at the end of the day, even though we all know we should eat healthy—and at this point in history more people are health-conscious about their TV habits than ever before—sometimes you need that hit of sugar and fat, of melodrama and familiarity. Network TV still has its place, but it’s at the tip of the food pyramid. Please, don’t grind your mind down on trash like I did by watching five seasons of Southland continuously; see how blunt too much bad TV can make you? I mean could I have overcooked this analogy any further? But by all means, eat your treats (and don’t get me wrong, Southland is a particularly tasty one), but keep your diet healthy. Trust me, your time is better spent rewatching The Wire.

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