The Wire is to Van Morrison as Lost is to The Beatles
It’s been an odd fall for this blog – despite a tremendous surge in page views (prompted by my posts on running a faculty search at Middlebury), I’ve had virtually nothing to say about television (or much else, due to the time spent on that search and other administrative & teaching tasks). Hopefully the next couple of weeks will rectify that, as I join the throng of TV critics posting Best Of lists for both the year and decade, spread out over a few posts.
To run counter to the trend, I’m going to lead with the top of my list. Anyone who reads this blog can hardly be surprised at my top two shows of the decade, as they’re the programs I’ve written most about. But in writing up my thoughts on The Wire and Lost, I came up with a parallel that deserves its own post, if only for its complete wrongness.
The Wire is my #1 show of the decade, and probably of any decade. Though I don’t have much more to say about the show that I haven’t already written, I want to add one more accolade: The Wire is the Astral Weeks of television.
Readers who know Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks are hopefully nodding in agreement. Those who don’t are helping to prove the parallel. Astral Weeks is an undisputed masterpiece in the ears of nearly all who know it, although it is by no means a hit. Most who know and love it proselytize its greatness and try to reach converts. But it remains a widely acknowledged great work that many music fans still don’t know – for instance, it took 33 years to sell enough copies to reach “gold” status.
It is also highly un-influential – nothing else sounds like it, and little even tries. I can imagine being a musician in the late-1960s, hearing Astral Weeks, and realizing that it would be simply impossible to mimic its blend of musical styles and raw poetic emotion. All you can do is tip your cap to its ambition and greatness. It is truly singular.
The Wire is like that. Everyone who knows it, loves it, but most still don’t know it. Nobody tries to be like it because it stands as an impossible-to-replicate singular vision unique to its creative team and cultural moment. And it will deservedly top lists like these for a very long time.
My #2 show has inspired me to write even more words and posts, with more to come this spring as we get the final season. But to extend the classic rock music analogy, I think that Lost is like a combination of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper.* Like these classic Beatles albums, Lost proudly exhibits its innovations and experiments in attention-getting, baroque and often over-the-top ways. And like The Beatles (and unlike Astral Weeks / The Wire), Lost‘s innovations have been quite popular and prompted many imitators, most of which fail to come close to matching the original’s spirit and successes. (However, as far as I know, Lost has never caused a competing creator to have a nervous breakdown, as with Brian Wilson’s attempts to keep up with The Beatles – although there might be a potential parallel with Tim Kring…)
But like The Beatles, what makes Lost work is not really the ornamentation of experiments or narrative pyrotechnics. None of The Beatles innovations would really matter much if the underlying music weren’t perfect pop songs. Likewise, Lost works because underneath the time-jumping crazy mythology, there are great characters and a compelling pulpy genre story. Both Lost and The Beatles gesture toward profundity, with name-dropping references to philosophers and an array of cultural allusions, and both create dense webs of mysterious references that compel us to seek out deeper meaning (maybe the Paul is Dead game should be seen as the antecedent for today’s ARGs?). Ultimately though, there’s not much there there – it’s a well-crafted illusion of depth rather than actual insight or wisdom. That’s okay though, because at their core, both deliver the goods of perfectly-crafted popular music / storytelling – and that’s not easy.**
The failure of the Lost clones, from Heroes to Flash Forward, to match its underlying core highlights how amazingly difficult it is to simultaneously experiment and engage. Thus Lost‘s sustained successes – and rewatching it this year made me realize that even when it felt like the show was running off the rails in parts of seasons 2 and 3, it was still really great if you take the long-term view – a masterpiece in its own way (assuming that season 6 doesn’t frak it up!). As Linda Holmes writes in her great essay, Lost‘s willingness to take crazy risks while still remaining true to its core characters and drama is what makes it extremely important in the history of television.
Both The Wire and Astral Weeks transcend the possibilities and limits of their respective media. Both Lost and The Beatles excel at what their media do best, and succeed less as radical breaks from form than as ground-breaking expansions of the possibilities that preceded them. And while I ultimately find the transcendent slightly more laudable than the innovative expansion, both approaches have created musical and televisual works that are simply better than nearly anything else.
* I’m treating Revolver and Sgt. Pepper as a musical two-parter, as they really are best understood in tandem. Sgt. Pepper is much more ornate in its innovation, and ultimately goes a bit too far away from the core pleasures of the perfect pop song. Revolver is less consistently ground-breaking, but it never makes a misstep at the level of song-craft. Recorded within a single year, they stand as a testament to the combination of innovation and tradition rarely matched in musical history.
** A quick update based on a number of comments: I’m definitely not claiming that Lost is as good or influential as The Beatles. I’m speaking about a very specific moment in The Beatles’s career, and suggesting that the blend of innovation & convention is comparable in terms of balance and cultural acknowledgment as the band in 1966-67. No TV show could possibly parallel the entirety of their career. And I’m a firm believer in the myth of “The Beatles are better than anything”…
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Tags: Lost, music, The Wire