The Wire is to Van Morrison as Lost is to The Beatles

19Dec09

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”…



16 Responses to “The Wire is to Van Morrison as Lost is to The Beatles”

  1. You already know that I think Lost is utter tripe, and I (still!) haven’t managed to finish watching The Wire, although I intend to do so. But the question I want to pose is what we ought to make of the fact that you haven’t written about (or, I believe even watched?) Mad Men. Clearly there are only so many hours in the decade, but as a television scholar, one would expect at least a nod or an account of this objection. So, what do you make of it?

    • Conveniently for Jason, Mad Men is going to end up straddling the decades (three seasons in the 00s, 2 or more seasons in the 10s), meaning he can make up for it in late 2019.

  2. Fantastic way to frame the discussion of the two shows.

    I think it is particularly apt in terms of discussing their legacies. I guess my question with Lost would be to what degree its true legacy (which you (and Holmes) correctly recognize to be its characters that ground its risktaking) will be understood by future generations.

    For the most part, the Beatles’ true success being their perfect pop songs is generally accepted – there might still be an older generation who has been unable to go beyond the hysteria, but the legacy of the Beatles is a basic understanding.

    However, with Lost, it seems like there are still a lot of people (both in terms of the writers/producers mentioned who try to emulate it, and people who still watch the show or who stopped watching the show) who seem to think that it isn’t a show about characters at all, that it exists purely for the sake of smoke monsters and paradoxes and all of that “sci-fi” stuff (even after five seasons). And while the failure of those shows should indicate that Lost is something more, history could just as easily remember them as part of NBC’s broader failure (Heroes) or as a failure of creative talent (…Heroes).

    I guess it comes down to who ends up writing the history: if we accept that The Wire’s critical accolades will remain a footnote due to their isolation within those limited few (which includes a disproportionate number of critics) who have watched the show, then I wonder if Lost’s more populist impact will perhaps see its nuances swallowed up in its hype a decade from now or if, like the Beatles, that foundation will emerge to the surface of the series’ place in the decade’s television landscape.

  3. 8 Ashley Wysocki

    I just can’t see you comparing Lost to The Beatles. The Beatles are SO MUCH better in terms of quality that it breaks down the whole parallel. For one, they were simply hugely popular in a way that Lost clearly isn’t. If Lost really was like The Beatles, they’d have an audience of at least 25 million, probably more. And then the great thing about The Beatles is they were so consistent which again, Lost clearly isn’t. Lost has been influential in terms of serial programming which I am eternally grateful as a hater of episodic TV but it is not of the same perfect at its medium as The Beatles are. Both the characters and underlying story have some serious issues which is why many people have stopped watching the show (including me). There is a difference between innovating and innovating in a consistent, high quality way.

    In terms of best two shows of the decade, what about Arrested Development? The Wire and AD go very well together in a best of the best list.

  4. @Ian – I’ll have another post on my blindspots (i.e. other shows that I haven’t watched enough to praise and why)

    @Myles – I think so much of Lost’s legacy will be determined by s6, showing how hard it is to write about these ongoing serials in process. But we keep trying…

    @Ashley – I completely agree that The Beatles as a whole are better than Lost, but that’s not the comparison I was trying to make. When doing such rankings of series and albums, I was trying to show how there are (at least) two types of excellence typified by these works, focusing on a specific moment of the Beatles’ career. No TV series could ever come close to the entirety of The Beatles, whether in terms of influence, consistency, variety, or cultural importance.

    And AD will appear on another one of my lists for sure…

  5. You know that you’ve just opened up this discussion to a barrage of Beatles song title puns, right?

    I think you’re exactly right about LOST’s ability to “simultaneously experiment and engage”. When it’s working, it’s the perfect combination of an almost TWIN PEAKS-style arthouse experimentalism AND pulpy, engaging, just-one-more-episode storytelling. The fact that it does both is what makes it so fascinating to me.

  6. I’d argue The Sopranos is closer to The Beatles in this argument, since The Beatles didn’t just make popular, great pop/rock songs, they revolutionized the terms of what was possible in rock and elevated a medium that was seen as popular, but disposable into the realm of art, which is basically what The Sopranos did for TV.

    And, I’d argue The Sopranos was similarly experimental in structure and content, while at the same time providing the basic pleasure of a good story. And, The Sopranos has captivated the cultural consciousness in a way that Lost didn’t. Lost has shed a great deal of viewers as it’s gone on, in a way that The Beatles never did as they went deeper into experimentation. But, late period Sopranos definitely went more into Lennon style post Beatle experimentation at the end, frustrating a lot of the fans who wanted the basic stories of the earlier seasons.

    • I just posted an update in the original post to clarify – I don’t think Lost = The Beatles, as no TV show could. I’ll have more to say about Sopranos later in my list, but I’d say you’re overstating what The Sopranos brought to TV.

  7. 14 Scott Ellington

    I think the analogy is exquisite!

  8. 15 Sonia

    That’s amazing: I’ve been calling LOST the Beatles of television since I’ve gotten hooked on the show. The only thing I obsess over more than LOST is The Beatles!


  1. 1 The Wire: It May Be the Greatest, but Is It Influential? at Inessentials

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