Below is a transcript of a roundtable audio discussion featuring House contributors Andrew Johnston (Time Out New York), Alan Sepinwall (The Star-Ledger, What’s Alan Watching), and Matt Zoller Seitz (The New York Times).
MZS: This is Matt Seitz. We’re here at Joe Jr.’s restaurant at Sixth Avenue and 12th St. with Alan Sepinwall of The Star-Ledger of Newark and Andrew Johnston of Time Out New York. Andrew and Alan and I have decided to get together and talk about the greatest drama show on television, because at one point or another, all of us have declared a particular drama show to be the greatest dramatic series in the history of American television. I’ll just start with my pick, which is Deadwood, and I think we’ll go around the table.
AS: This is Alan, and my pick would be The Wire.
AJ: This is Andrew, and I’m arguing on behalf of The Sopranos.
MZS: OK, Alan, since The Wire is freshest in everybody’s minds—and we’re right next to a dish deposit bin, so watch out, folks, if you’re wearing headphones—
AS: And be prepared, food will be served at some point—
MZS: —and it might turn into a Sergio Leone movie, with the loud eating. But anyway, Alan, you want to dive in?
AS: Sure. I like The Wire the best of the three. They’re all amazing shows, but [The Wire] is the most consistent from beginning to end, and there’s much less fluctuation in quality than I found in the other two. And I feel like it has more to offer in terms of comedy and action and drama and high culture and low culture. It can be all things to all viewers at different times.
MZS: I’m gonna throw down with Deadwood, because although it certainly doesn’t pass the consistency-of-quality-over-time test—the highs were unbelievable and the lows were pretty low from scene to scene and episode to episode—but I thought for degree of difficulty, it wins in a walk. It works as a portrait of the West, as a look at America, as kind of a parable about how society is created. And also, just on every level—the acting; the complexity of the characterizations, even the small ones; the filmmaking; the atmosphere and everything else—it’s doing more things and doing them better than any of these shows.
AJ: I’m going to start off by saying, really quickly, I guess, that I have an enormous amount of love for all three shows, and they’re separated by about—I’m holding my fingers about less than a millimeter apart here—
AJ: For me, The Sopranos is a tough choice, because the three shows deal with America in different ways. Deadwood is the past and the origin. The Wire is urban problems and just really big issues facing the country as a whole. And The Sopranos is really the more individual show, a personal show, the one that’s really about the family in the modern era and in the society that’s come about. It’s easier to identify with in some ways, because you have mostly a single-viewpoint character, Tony, but of course, [series creator] David Chase doesn’t really want you to identify with him., because you’re always reminded ever so often that Tony’s a really scummy gangster. One of the things that really distinguishes it from The Wire, Alan, is that sometimes it’s definitely not an all-things-to-all-people kind of a show. It’s a show where Chase, I think, critiques his audience. It’s interesting that you were saying that being all things to all people is kind of a good thing about The Wire, because I find sometimes that, as much as I love The Wire, sometimes I find that—and I was talking about this with a friend of mine the other day—it really caters to viewer expectations much more than the other shows do. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I find that of the three, it’s the one that’s most inclined to give the fans what they want.
MZS: I would amend that only to say that it pays much more attention to plot and delivering setups and payoffs, whereas The Sopranos and Deadwood were more willing to wander into an alley and hang out for awhile. And I thought that was a good thing, because I think atmospherically, Deadwood is the best of the three shows. Watching it, I feel that I am in another mental space, I’m in another time, another place. I get that with The Sopranos and The Wire some of the time, but not as often as I did with Deadwood, even when it wasn’t firing on all cylinders.
AS: And I think that if [Wire creator] David Simon really wanted to give the fans what they wanted, then Omar would still be alive right now. I think what you’re seeing, Andrew is—as Matt says—[The Wire] is more focused on plot. It’s a slightly easier show to predict because it teaches you how to watch it—
MZS: That’s true.
AS: —and by now, at the end of the fifth season, we understand where things are going and people on Matt’s blog and on my blog, too, kind of thought Omar was gonna go, and was gonna be killed by somebody like Kenard.
MZS: True. Once they’re conditioned to know the rhythms of the show, they’re conditioned to expect the right outcome—
MZS:—not necessarily the one that’s gonna make them personally happy, but you know, the dramatically correct outcome.
MZS: And I will say that all three of the shows were actually pretty good about that—
MZS: —and whether or not they really surprised you, or whether they gave you what you expected or something unexpected, or if they did the David Chase double-fakeout, they all were definitely attuned to that, [and] after a while, you got a sense of what the world view of the show was, and if the show was not true to that, then you were disappointed.
A Whole Organism
MZS: Talking about degree of difficulty, about the variety of things that a show does, one of the things that I appreciated so much about Deadwood was that, whereas The Wire is great at putting you in the moment, and The Sopranos did that, I think, as well, except when it was getting into Tony’s dreams, what I loved about Deadwood was that you got the sense of an entire community simultaneously. You get a sense of the entire community with The Wire, certainly, and sometimes with The Sopranos. But [with Deadwood] you got the sense of [elements of] an entire organism functioning, sometimes at cross-purposes with each other, and also, sometimes, [of] people doing or saying things for a particular reason and not knowing why they did it, and having an effect other than the one that they intended. That happened constantly and consistently on that show in a way that felt very true to life for me.
AS: I would say it happens pretty consistently on The Wire as well, where you see how a decision that’s made in city hall winds up affecting a kid in the eighth grade; how Herc the cop does something, doesn’t even know what he’s doing [and] destroys some other kid’s life; things along that line. If it seems more like a whole organism on Deadwood, it’s just because the show took place over about three square blocks, so it’s very easy for Swearengen to stand on his balcony and see everything that’s going on at the high and low ends of the town, whereas Carcetti has no idea what Bubbles’ life is.
MZS: That’s true, and maybe the caveat we should have thrown in at the beginning is, we know that we’re comparing apples and oranges and pears here.
AS. Yes, yes.
AJ: Exactly, yes. On The Sopranos, I think the community is, in many ways, something that exists in the past. You’re really aware of all of these connections that came from when [the characters] were all—when everybody’s family was in the Italian neighborhoods of Newark before the riots of the ’60s. And then it just fragmented, [with] people going to different suburban neighborhoods in New Jersey. You’re aware of these things that happened in the past, like Tony having had the fling with Charmaine Bucco in high school, and that having an impact on all these relationships years later with Tony and Artie [Bucco] and the restaurant and all this stuff. There are all these references to this shared past that the characters have. It’s far more fragmented in the present, which maybe keeps you from realizing that that element of community is there on the show. I was fortunate to have the experience of watching the entire run of The Sopranos from the beginning going into the final episode. When you watch the entire show over the course of about a month, these things really just, like, pop together.
MZS: And you did watch the entire show over the course of a month? All six seasons?
AJ: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
AS: I’d imagine that put you in a very dark frame of mind by the end of it.
AJ: Kind of, yeah, kind of.
MZS: What you’re reminding me of there is that Deadwood had that aspect as well, although it was not just happening in real time as you watched it. You saw a character’s personality changing, sometimes in ways they weren’t aware of. That’s something that almost every character, even the small ones, had in common on Deadwood, whereas not so much on The Sopranos, and only in certain cases on The Wire.
AS: Well, I mean, the motto of The Sopranos is, “People don’t change.”
AJ: Yeah, yeah.
AS: That’s one of its firm beliefs. So [The Sopranos and Deadwood] are working at cross-purposes. On The Wire you see that some people can change, but they have to work very hard to do so, within the strictures of the institutions they work and live in.
MZS: But one of the many things that all three of them have in common—and I’m discovering more similarities as we talk about them—is [that] they’re sort of meditating on the idea of identity. Who are we, and how responsible are we for who we are? And to what degree can we change it? And under what circumstances? I think that’s a big part of it.
AJ: Fundamentally—and I suppose we’re supposed to be defending our own shows here—one of the things that appeals to me most about The Wire is its belief that under the right circumstances, people can change. In the penultimate episode, Bubbles’ big scene at the AA meeting was probably one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen on television.
MZS: It was.
AS: Andre Royo is an amazing actor.
MZS: He is terrific. And of course, it probably goes without saying that one of the reasons [that scene] was so effective was because you had a five season build-up to that.
AS: Yes. They earned that, entirely.
MZS: They did. But you know, Andrew, I would have to say the same thing about Deadwood, only to an even more pronounced extreme. The thing that appeals to me personally—and ultimately I think we’re talking about personal preference here, because they are shows that stand head and shoulders above almost everything else that’s been done—what I appreciate most about Deadwood is two things. First, the sense of almost symphonic complexity—of all of these interlocking pieces working together dramatically, and all of the different, multiple levels that it’s operating on. It could be structurally interesting, in the way that a season builds over 12 episodes; and then from scene to scene, it can be interesting, just the arcs that the characters undergo within a particular scene; and then on top of all that, there’s the language. The language itself is as complicated as a lot of individual shows are.
MZS: There’s more going on, not just in Swearengen’s monologues, which I think everybody who’s seen the show appreciates, but throughout. I was actually pulling some quotes from Deadwood before I came over here, just trying to remind myself of some of the highlights. Some of the things that popped out of Francis Wolcott’s mouth were extraordinary, and they sounded very different from what Swearengen said. But over and above everything else, Deadwood appeals to my sense of life, in that it is aware of how dark and how cruel people can be, and yet I feel like [series creator David Milch] has something in common with Robert Altman, in that he appreciates the complexity of human beings, all of them. All of them. Even a character like Steve the Drunk, who you would think would be just one-note, reveals new shadings each time you see him. Every single character on that show, right on down the line. There are many characters on The Sopranos and The Wire that are basically a plot function. You know they’re there to be a foil to other characters, and so forth, and I don’t get a sense of an infinite potential lying within every human being in the way that I did with Deadwood.
AJ: I’m inclined to agree there. Definitely there are characters on The Sopranos that have felt that way. It seemed like, toward the end of the show—I can’t decide if they became more than plot devices, or if they became a different kind of plot device. Paulie Walnuts was always a pretty consistent comic relief character throughout the run of the show, and then there’s the episode where he and Tony go on the road trip, and then Tony starts thinking about him as just, really, this potential liability in his organization—
MZS: Where they get on the boat?
AJ:—yeah, and the nature of their relationship, a lot of things. Also, Janice had become sort of a one-note shrew, [but by the end of Season Six] you see that she’s gonna be raising Bobby’s kids as a single mother. You really see that she’s becoming Livia, to a full extent that you hadn’t seen before. It’s hard to say if it’s real complexity that’s coming out or if [the characters are] becoming just a different kind of plot device; it’s hard to say.
MZS: It’s also a reaction to changed circumstances as well, which I think is true for all of these shows.
AS: And I would say that with The Wire, that while there were a couple of people here and there who are little more than plot devices, for the most part the show has done a really good job of giving you little clues [as to] why characters are the way they are. When you see Rawls at the gay bar, even if it’s for two seconds, it explains so much about the way he carries himself, and how he treats people. Burrell had some scenes toward the end of his run on the show when you realized, “Yeah, he was a hack, but he was kind of made that way by other people.”
AJ: Another little example that I want to toss out there that I just loved a lot recently was, whenever you see Lester on a stakeout, he’s listening to this old R&B from the age of his youth. It think it’s really interesting that you hear very little hip-hop on The Wire, but with older characters, you hear R&B music that’s very specifically chosen [to match] when that character would have been young—like the guy Omar was on the stakeout with, in that one episode.
MZS: I wondered if there are particular songs that are “stakeout music” for these characters.
AS: I like that in one of the recent episodes, you find out that Bunk’s ringtone is Lou Rawls’ “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.”
AJ: I didn’t pick up on that at all, wow.
AS: The Sopranos did great stuff with ringtone music. In the scene where Janice and Ralphie are doing the thing that I refuse to describe, and they’re interrupted by Ralphie’s ringtone, which is the theme from “Rocky.”
MZS: My brother Richard sampled Tony Soprano’s ringtone, and now that’s his ringtone. And it’s a little bit eerie, I have to say. When you hear that go off, you expect that the bullets are gonna start flying at any minute.
AJ: That’s a pretty good idea. There’s probably some generic phone out there that has it.
“I’m as nimble as a forest creature.”
AS: Getting back to what you were saying before, Matt, about language: If we’re strictly discussing language, Deadwood wins in a walk. I don’t think anyone would dispute that Milch is one of the great wordsmiths. There are certainly great turns of phrase on the other shows—Marlo’s “My name is my name” thing, from the most recent episode.
MZS: And I will say there is a certain rhythm to The Wire that is easily overlooked, because it is a show that is so much about the plot and what happens next and the decisions that people make. But yeah, there is a lovely rhythm to what at least some of the characters say to each other.
AS: But I mean, you listen to some of those Deadwood lines, and it’s—
MZS: In fact— [removes folded sheet from shirt pocket]
AS: Oh, and he’s got the piece of paper.
MZS: I brought a couple here. Like this one: Francis Wolcott, the monologue from the episode “Something Very Expensive,” which contains the massacre sequence, when he’s walking through the streets, and he says:
“Past hope. Past kindness or consideration. Past justice. Past satisfaction. Past warmth or cold or comfort. Past love. But past surprise? What an endlessly unfolding tedium life would then become.”
MZS: It’s just beautiful. It’s just beautiful!
AJ: It’s really great stuff.
MZS: There’s a lot of lines like that in there. And there are so many moments in Deadwood that absolutely emotionally wrecked me. Wrecked me. And there are a few moments in The Sopranos that did that for me, more in The Wire, but Deadwood...I was making a list of the episodes that just wiped me out emotionally, and actually, more often than not there was a scene or scenes that did that. Particularly the death of Wild Bill and the funeral of Wild Bill and the trial surrounding that; the Season [One] finale when Bullock fishes his badge out of the mud; “A Lie Agreed Upon,” Parts One and Two, which opened season two, and “Sold Under Sin” and “Something Very Expensive.” And then Season Three: “Leviathan [Smiles]” and “Unauthorized Cinnamon,” which I think is the greatest Deadwood episode of all time. This moment in the season-two finale, I guess—I’m sorry, season one, when Jewel and Doc Cochran are dancing together in the saloon, and she says, “Say ’I’m as nimble as a forest creature.’” And he says, “You’re as nimble as a forest creature.” And then she says, “No, say it about yourself.” And he says, “I’m as nimble as a forest creature.” Lovely. Lovely! And that Deadwood had the courage to go there—to be that open in the way that it expressed emotion—stands it head and shoulders above everything.
AS: Now, I love Deadwood. I don’t think any scenes on that show affected me emotionally nearly as much as some of the ones that I’m gonna rattle off now from The Wire.
AS: The death of Wallace. D’Angelo then calling after Stringer to ask where Wallace is. Carver walking down the corridor as Randy calls after him, asking, “You gonna help me, Sgt, Carver? You gonna help me?”
MZS: Oh, that was horrible. I mean, in a good way.
AS: Yes. Bubbles’ speech in the most recent episode that we’ve just been talking about. There’s another scene at the very end with Michael and Dukie which is possibly the most devastating thing I’ve ever watched.
MZS: Actually, I would add to that [list], a couple of episodes ago, the scene between McNulty and his squeeze—
MZS: Yeah. Oh my God, that was horrible.
AS: This show messes me up. I’ve watched it a few times, and my wife doesn’t watch it but she’s sitting there with me and I start getting upset, and she says, “Why are you watching this?”
MZS: Yeah. Yeah.
AS: Because it makes me feel like that!
MZS: Roger Ebert had a great line, I wish I could remember in what review it was, but he said when people ask him if a movie is a downer or depressing, he says that no movie that is true to itself is depressing to him.
AJ: That’s a great line.
MZS: And I’m paraphrasing. But even if the characters are being unimaginably cruel to each other, if what happens is so grossly unfair that you just can’t stand it, if it seems like it’s the thing that ought to happen in that story, then it was elating to him rather than depressing. And I feel the same way.
AS: Andrew, The Sopranos is a more cynical show, but I’d imagine that there were some moments that affected you.
AJ: Absolutely, yeah. The first one that comes to mind is when Tony comes home and finds AJ in the middle of of the pathetic suicide attempt—
AS: Oh my God. Yeah.
AJ: It’s just really, really rough stuff, and it showed just how much Tony loved him. I really think there’s a lot of scenes [like that] on The Sopranos, but they seem to be a little more small, because you’re left a little bit more to figure out what’s going on inside the characters’ heads. I’m thinking of another [scene] very early on, early in the run of the first or second season, where during one of his many drug-related fuck-ups, Christopher is given a “shit or get off the pot” ultimatum by Tony, and at the end of the episode, he’s sitting outside Tony’s house smoking a cigarette thinking about which way he’s gonna go, and then he goes back inside. There aren’t as many showy speeches. Oftentimes it’s left to you to figure out what’s going on inside the characters’ heads. The first episode where everybody really realized, “Hey, this is a great show” was “College,” from the first season, which was one of the [episodes] that first did that to any serious extent.
MZS: That was the episode where a lot of people got on the train and never got off.
AJ: That episode, exactly.
MZS: There were episodes like that, I think, for all of these shows. [For Deadwood], it was the shooting of Wild Bill and that whole sequence with his assassin running through the streets with that music playing—which was actually a cue used in The Insider where [Jeffrey Wigand] drives to the courthouse. Just overwhelming. I felt a little bit lightheaded the first time I saw that. I couldn’t believe how big it was—how emotionally big and how physically big it was.
AS: And you’ve got the one guy coming in with the [severed] Indian head that nobody cares about because Wild Bill’s just been killed.
AJ: That’s wild, yeah. With The Sopranos there are a handful of those moments that you think of as really big moments in the show, that are really big and bloody, one of the most notable being the climax of the second season—
MZS: I was just gonna bring this up!
AJ: —when Janice kills Richie Aprile, right, and then they have to dispose of the body. In many ways, [the killing is] a shock. But it’s the prolonged disposal of the body, and the detail that Christopher and—is it Furio, I think?—
AS: Furio, yeah, with the meat grinder—
AJ:—Furio have to deal with, the nuts and bolts of it, which I find really fascinating. Beyond that, though, so many of the really big moments on the show are small, quiet things. There’s very little dialogue in the scene at the end of—I think it’s the end of the third season? The one where Tony and Carmela split up temporarily—
AS: The end of the fourth season.
AJ: There’s very little dialogue in that scene, and I think it’s because [the writers are] trusting, to an extent, that [viewers] have been through similar situations so that they can project onto that. In real life, when you’re in those situations, they’re pretty quiet, too, because you don’t really know what to do or to say. When I was in that situation with my parents, in AJ Soprano’s shoes, I certainly didn’t know what to say or do.
MZS: I was thinking also of the end of season two, which I just watched again recently. I was up late at night—which is often the case with me—and I called up some Sopranos episodes. I wanted to see which ones they had up [at HBO] On Demand, and it was a lot of stuff from season two, and I ended up watching most of season two over the course of a couple weeks. I was surprised by how well it hung together. Certainly the rhythm was different from season one or season six, which had more peaks—
MZS: —but in a weird way, it was almost a preparation for the second half of Season Six, because it was sort of a long, slow whimper. And when you get to the end with Big Pussy on the boat, now, talk about an emotionally devastating, complicated exchange—
MZS:—when he is in the boat, and first he’s in denial, and then there’s sort of a pathetic desperation to him, and there’s there’s almost a dignity —
MZS:—like he rouses himself and decides to face his fate like a man. And then Tony twists the knife on him when he’s telling that raunchy sexual anecdote, and Tony says, “That never happened to you, did it?”
MZS: Even at the moment of his death, [Tony]’s not gonna give Pussy anything.
AJ: Of course, now I’m thinking about all the parallels between that and the scene with Paulie on the boat that we were talking about. That’s one of the wonderful things about The Sopranos, if I can hijack this for a sec—that, maybe because it ran longer than the other two shows, it was able to be a little bit more successful with oblique references to things, and also, with its length, it was able to do some really great self-contained episodes within the context of the big picture. The Wire was always a pretty strictly serialized show, with nothing too self-contained in it. Sopranos did some great, more or less self-contained episodes about Christopher. One [episode that], maybe because of my own personal circumstances, had a really deep effect on me would be the episode with Johnny Sack early in the last season where Sidney Pollack is the guest star. It was pretty much of a self-contained episode while fitting in very well with all of the themes of the series, and [it] worked beautifully. That’s one of those things that speaks to TV as a unique medium. If it were a novel, you wouldn’t be able to have this sort of self-contained episode about a guy like that. Or in a film.
MZS: It is sort of midway between a novel and a short story a lot of the time. At least, it has that liberty if it wants to take it.
AS: The interesting thing about The Sopranos is, for the most part—if not entirely—the episodes that people remember as the classics had very little to do with anything else going on [in the season]. “Pine Barrens” has nothing to do with anything.
MZS: That’s true.
AS: “College” is largely self-contained. Whereas the format of The Wire—and to a lesser extent, Deadwood—didn’t really allow for that. It’s just that they’re telling one story, where The Sopranos was telling one story but had time for these digressions which were often the most rewarding parts.
AJ: Also, I was gonna say really quickly in response to that, when I watched the whole series back-to-back, a lot of the serialized stuff that seemed really slow to me the first time around seemed a lot more interesting and compelling while watching the whole series together. All of the stuff about Little Carmine and the Esplanade and all that stuff, which seemed like pretty slow going and “When’s this gonna build up to something?” the first time around, the second time around the serialization seemed a lot smoother.
MZS: That’s another quality that these series have in common: they withstand repeat viewings. There is enormous pleasure to be had watching it the first time and not knowing what’s going to happen. But then you can go back and appreciate and see foreshadowing that maybe you didn’t notice before.
AS: One of the smartest things somebody pointed out to me about this latest Wire episode: Marlo gives the whole, big “My name is my name” speech, and someone then pointed out that way back in season two, when Vondas and the Greek are getting out of town, Vondas explains that Nick knows his name, but “My name is not my name.”
AS: They’re laying pipe all the way through, and I know Deadwood’s doing that, too.
MZS: The continuity people on those shows must have had whip marks in their backs. It’s unbelievable how much they remember, and the little things that they can pull out and build on further down the line.
AJ: One weakness, perhaps, compared to the other two—if you want to call it a weakness—you could tell at a couple of points that they didn’t know where they were going all the way through, in that from-day-one, direct sense. I’m sure you guys have probably interviewed David Chase more times than I have—I’ve only talked to him once for about 20 some-odd minutes—one of the things that surprised and impressed me the most, [and that] I thought about in my own experience with the show, was when Chase was talking about how much the show was about being a parent, and about how he pegged so much to the ages of Robert Iler and Jamie-Lynn Sigler [and] the gaps between seasons [and] making sure that the continuity reflected exactly where they would be at that stage in their lives. This was global attention that he paid to what some people would say was a secondary aspect of the show, the kids. [You’d think that the first level was] the mob level, then Tony and Carmela, with the kids being maybe the third level of the show.
MZS: I thought the evolution of Meadow was fascinating. It was like when you cut down a tree and you can see the concentric rings that indicate the different phases of growth that it went through. That’s how precise it was with Meadow.
AJ: Her final fate is, in some ways, one of the more Wire-esque aspects of the show—that element that she’s going to allegedly become this lawyer fighting discrimination against Italian-Americans. Everybody knows what that really means.
AS: Yeah. She can’t get out. No one can get out.
MZS: How fatalistic are each of these shows? That’s one question worth asking. To what degree can you escape your destiny, according to each show? Do you have a destiny, and can you escape it?
AS: Well, The Sopranos makes it pretty clear that escaping is impossible. I mean, that’s what the entire show is about. The Wire, less so, but it shows that escaping is very, very hard.
MZS: Well, that line of Tony’s on The Sopranos, “There’s two ways a guy like me can go out—dead, or in prison”—that works, I think, figuratively as well as literally: that either your life is destroyed by an attempt to change your fundamental nature, or you end up in the prison of whoever you were all this time.
AS: And I can see you being more disposed toward Deadwood because that’s by far the most optimistic show of the three.
MZS: It is. And it sounds funny to say that, because it’s such a nasty show. It’s so profane and bloody and sexually explicit and everything. But ultimately I feel that it is a life-affirming series, in terms of believing in the potential of every human being.
AJ: [That’s] one of the things I found really interesting that maybe didn’t come through as fully as it could have because of its early ending—when you look up the historical record and see that Seth Bullock lived to be, like, eighty years old and was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s best friends, and all of this amazing stuff about the career that he had after the years of the show.
MZS: Let’s say a word about the context surrounding these shows—external factors that might have affected how they were made. I bring this up because probably the main argument that people would lodge against Deadwood being the greatest of these shows is that it ended on an unsatisfying note, and there was a lot of stuff in season three that felt incomplete, that felt like it was raised and then not followed through on. And of course, my defense against that is that a lot of that stuff was groundwork that was being laid as the first half of, essentially, a two-season arc—
MZS: —that there was supposed to be a fourth season, and knowing how carefully they laid out every single detail in Seasons One and Two, I find it inconceivable that they would have pursued so many blind alleys in season three.
AS: But I’ve followed Milch’s career very closely for a long time, and the man is a genius, and he does amazing things, but he does have this tendency to go down blind alleys a lot. And I think even in Seasons One and Two, there are certain points—and I’m gonna be hard-pressed to cite examples right now—where I felt like, towards the end of the season, not everything was coming together as well as it might have. Milch has always been much better at beginnings than at endings.
MZS: I disagree with that, because I think the finale of season one and the finale of season two were maybe the best season finales that I’ve ever seen on any show. But again, to kind of return to this point, the fact is, when we talk about Deadwood, if this were a movie, it would be The Magnificent Ambersons or Major Dundee or another movie that was essentially taken out of the creator’s hands before he had a chance to really properly complete it. That’s interesting because for The Wire I think, to a lesser extent, that’s also true. Weren’t there originally supposed to be more episodes [in season five], or did [Simon] hope that there would be more?
AS: Well, actually, I talked to Simon about this the other day, and he said if he’d wanted to do more episodes this season, they would have let him, and they decided after they beat out all the stories that they could do it in ten, ten-and-a-half, and that anything additional they did might have just been redundant.
AJ: A lot of people felt that the first part of this season felt really rushed. I did not feel that way.
MZS: Yeah. Yeah.
AJ: Although it’s interesting: I forgot that it was ten episodes when I was watching it. I watched the first seven of the season assuming that it would go twelve or thirteen, and then after seeing the first seven, I read the press materials and was reminded, “Oh, shit—it’s only ten episodes. Well, this is gonna end pretty quick.”
MZS: But then, they are painting in broader brush strokes in season five than they had in previous seasons. And I think there are a lot of things that happen that are dependent on our knowledge of what happened in Seasons One through Four, so that there doesn’t need to be as much setup—there’s more payoff, not as much setup.
AJ: This is a total digression, but I found it interesting the sort of audiences that the shows have found. Reading forums like the HBO boards or Television Without Pity and other places, it’s perfectly understandable that The Wire would have a very large African-American fan base, just because of all the characters and stuff. But it also kind of makes you realize, by contrast, just how overwhelmingly white the audiences of the other shows are. I found it interesting to read a lot of the online discussion by black viewers and realize just how much discussion online of what’s on TV comes from an upper-middle-class, white perspective.
MZS: Right. Right.
AJ: In one of these discussions, a former Baltimore street corner drug dealer is posting on the New York Times’s discussion [boards]. Black people from across the social spectrum’s perspective on the show has been really fascinating to me. For one thing, it’s sort of a testament to what a good reporter someone like Simon is. Most of the writers of that show are white, and black audiences don’t seem to notice or care because the characters are so well-rendered. A lot of those discussions speak to just how right Simon gets it, and to what many people have said: that all of these great black actors are going to have a hard time finding work after the show—
MZS: —or at least parts that are as rich as the ones they have on The Wire.
AS: Yeah. I mean, Andre Royo was on Terminator the other day, and that’s a complete waste of him.
AJ: It’s a waste of him, but it’s a better show than I thought it would be.
MZS: But actually, you know what, though? I was thinking about that, and I was thinking about the sorts of careers that a lot of these actors on Deadwood and The Sopranos and The Wire have had, and [how] even a lot of the most interesting parts that some of them have had have not been as interesting as the ones they had on those shows.
AS: Well, yeah.
MZS: And I would be, frankly, stunned if, as great an actor as Ian McShane is, he ever did anything that was as demanding and as complex as what he did on Deadwood. Same thing for Gandolfini. And there are even smaller players I think that’s true of as well. Molly Parker, you know, my God, look at all the things she got to do. When is she going to be able to do all those things again?
AS: A lot of that comes from the fact that these people were doing series, and now they’re trying to move on to movies, and no movie part will ever be as complex as Tony Soprano or Al Swearengen or Bubbles.
MZS: Is that an inherent strength of the medium, then, as opposed to movies?
AJ: And another thing about that is [series] will give opportunities like that to actors that have been around. McShane had a really, really long career in England. Some stuff about his career I’d forgotten about or wasn’t even really aware of—that he was on Dallas for a couple of seasons in the ’80s, you know—
MZS: My God, I’d forgotten about that. Did he have a Texas accent?
AJ: I don’t know. I think he was playing a British guy with an exaggerated British accent. I was reading some interview where he was talking about hanging out with Frank Sinatra in Vegas in the mid-’70s. He’s been around for a long time, and he gets the role of a lifetime this way. Molly Parker did tons and tons and tons of stuff in Canada before she [got] this role that lets her do [all] that. With film, you already have to have a certain level of celebrity to get somewhere. and with TV, it really is more about the talent, or its much more about who’s right for the role…No one ever accused Steven Van Zandt of being the world’s greatest actor, but he’s a lot of fun to watch as an actor.
MZS: That’s true. It seems like there’s a little more room to throw some curveballs, casting-wise.
AS: On The Sopranos, Tony Sirico, Steven Schirippa, some of the others—I don’t know that they can give you a lot more than they gave you on The Sopranos, but for that show, they were perfect.
AJ: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
MZS: I’ll never forget going to the premiere of season two of The Sopranos at Radio City Music Hall. I took an editor from metro who wanted to tag along, and so we went together. Tony Sirico walked in before the thing was gonna start, and he had an entourage with him, and they were all dressed in unbelievably expensive, flashy suits, just like him. And there was a guy who was at his right hand all the time, and he was this absolutely enormous guy. He was probably six four, six five, maybe taller. Looked like, just, a hulk, like Ivan Drago from Rocky IV. This editor, who was sitting next to me, said, “Oh, my God.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “That guy. You see that guy with Tony Sirico?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “I can’t believe they let that guy out.” I said, “What did he do?” “He beat a guy to death in a bar like five or six years ago. He’s not supposed to be out of prison. I can’t believe he’s out.” Y’know, like, “Don’t make any sudden moves around this guy.”
AS: The Wire certainly has a lot of guys like that involved. Snoop (Felicia Pearson)—her criminal history is well-documented. Deacon Melvin is played by Melvin Williams, who was the basis for Avon Barksdale. There’s a lot of that. The real-life Omar ended up playing Omar’s sidekick toward the end of the series.
MZS: Have there been any shows that are comparable in scope to the shows we’re talking about here, before this? And if not, why? Was it just circumstantial?
AS: I think being on HBO and having the freedom that HBO provides, and then having these three very talented guys named David working on them—
MZS: Yeah, that’s interesting, isn’t it?
AS: I’m thinking of changing my name.
AJ: I was thinking about this the other day. I’m getting ready to write a long review of the first several hours of the John Adams, which I’m loving, and realizing, “We’re looking at the HBO knob-gobblers club here, aren’t we?”
MZS: Yeah, that’s true. I’ve watched the first three of John Adams as well, and—
AS: I haven’t seen any of it, don’t spoil it for me, I don’t wanna know how it ends!
MZS: Adams gets whacked.
MZS: On a boat.
AS: But if you look at Homicide, which is the closest thing to a direct ancestor of The Wire—
MZS: Hill Street Blues—
AS: —but I’m saying, both of those shows are great, great shows, but they’re chalk drawings and The Wire is a painting.
MZS: Yeah. And you had Bruce Weitz having to call people “dirtbag” and “hairball” because they couldn’t use profanity on Hill Street .
AJ: A big influence—and I just watched it again last year, after having almost forgotten about it because it had a short, short run—was Paul Haggis’ CBS show from the ’90s, EZ Streets—
AS: EZ Streets, yeah. I love EZ Streets.
AJ: There was a real sense, like on The Sopranos, of this past that ties back into—and I dunno, it felt like it took place in this really complex and developed world. That and Hill Street Blues. There were only a few shows that really gave you that sense before the HBO series of the late ’90s came along…It’s fascinating—one show I talk to people all the time about who are like, “I loved that!”, [even though] at the time it didn’t seem to have enormous critical respect, was Deep Space Nine, which had a sense that felt a bit like Deadwood to me. You felt you were seeing a really small slice of a really big picture. Unlike the other Star Trek shows, you felt like there was a lot of stuff going on beyond this tiny place where the characters were.
MZS: I’ve been very impressed with Battlestar Galactica in that respect—with how hardcore it is, and how kind of pay cable it seems. I can’t believe some of the places that they go on there, in terms of content, and that fact that it really is an adult series. It’s not for children.
AS: HBO certainly spawned a lot of these great shows. Mad Men on AMC. The Shield, to some extent, on FX. Because of what Oz and The Sopranos and the rest of these shows did, the rest of cable is starting to catch up.
AJ: But HBO really is still The Standard. I had missed the last few episodes that FX showed of The Riches, and it’s coming back for its second season right now, so I was going back and looking at the last couple of episodes of the first season. There’s this one scene where Eddie Izzard’s character snorts a whole bunch of crystal meth and is realizing just how expensive his family’s lifestyle is, and how much money he has to put together, and then he’s screaming at Minnie Driver on the phone, “Do you know how much money we’re spending on HBO?” They just have to acknowledge it, almost. You’ve talked about FX being kind of the HBO Lite—
MZS: It’s interesting some of the different lessons that these cable networks seem to have drawn [from the success of HBO series]. For FX, it’s what I call the “Oh, shit!” factor—that the appeal of HBO shows is when you’re watching them and somebody does something totally crazy and the audience goes, “Oh, shit!”
AS: You were supposed to stuff your mouth with food when you said that.
MZS: I was, that’s right!
AS: But you ate all your bacon already.
MZS: I know!
AS: Couldn’t wait.
Ending or Beginning
MZS: Well, is this the beginning of something, or is this the end of something?
AS: I don’t know. The problem with The Sopranos was that it was so good, but also so popular that I think it made people think it was possible to replicate that success on a regular basis. I think one of the reasons Deadwood got cancelled, because it was never gonna bring ratings close to what The Sopranos brought.
MZS: And yet, all things considered I think it was the second or the third highest rated show that they had, consistently.
AJ: Another thing about Deadwood, too, is that it had to be a lot more expensive than anything shot in contemporary—
AS: And also the fact that Milch is constantly writing and rewriting and tearing things apart and starting over.
AJ: It would be like the budget problems that [NBC] had with Aaron Sorkin on The West Wing times five, probably.
MZS: I ask this because I was re-watching some episodes from season one of Deadwood not too long ago, and at the beginning of the DVD they have a little trailer celebrating HBO. And this was, I guess, 2004, maybe, late 2004, when the first season came out on DVD. And in there were all these shows that were in rotation on HBO: they had Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Deadwood and The Wire—
MZS: —at the same time!
MZS: They were all in production at the same time!
AJ: And Curb Your Enthusiasm. Don’t forget about Curb Your Enthusiasm.
MZS: And Curb Your Enthusiasm, yeah. And I felt like I was looking at—this is like the lost continent of Atlantis here.
MZS: You know? Is it gone?
AS: You know, all it takes is for another one to come around and be a hit. But it’s gonna be hard.
AJ: Shows like Tell Me You Love Me and In Treatment seem like they’re going in a slightly different direction. It seems like almost [the] pursuit of a very different audience. They’re shows that I like quite well. Anytime that you get shows that I consider intelligent—
MZS: But they’re not shows that make me put my four-year old son to bed early.
AJ: No, they’re not. But perhaps they are more female-skewing shows than they’re male-skewing shows. That’s one possibility.
MZS: I suppose that’s possible. But then again, I have a lot of female friends who love series television, and they’re not into those shows as much as they were into The Sopranos or Deadwood.
AJ: Oh, I know. And I totally got my mom, who’s in her mid-’60s, into Deadwood, which I did not at all expect would happen. And she just became obsessed with it. Making calls like that is hard. It seems like right now, Showtime is kind of chugging along [with] the HBO model to a certain extent. I’m not really too crazy about any of their shows, except for Brotherhood, which ironically is the one that people say is a Sopranos rip-off, but I think it has a little bit more of The Wire in it. It owes a bit to both—
MZS: I was gonna say, Sopranos plus The Wire.
AJ: I think a show like Dexter emphasizes how fundamentally gimmicky they are in some ways. I don’t know if it was a salute to it or a jab at it, depending, on that last episode of The Wire.
MZS: I felt like it was a jab.
AJ: I kind of took it that way, too.
AS: Have any of us convinced the others of the rightness of our cause here?
MZS: Not really, but only because I do think—and I keep emphasizing this in comments sections of articles at The House Next Door—that ultimately these things come down to who you are and what you believe—
MZS: —and what sort of world you think we live in, or ought to live in. And everybody’s a little different in that regard, and different works of art speak to us differently.
AJ: That’s absolutely true. It really did kind of bum me out when that one commenter sort of said that he thought I was sort of…
AS:—insulting The Wire—
AJ: —by saying it wasn’t the best show ever, you know. Well, I don’t know. I was sort of grasping for a snappy lede. But just because you love one show doesn’t mean you can’t really love another. In my response, I hope I was sort of able to put it in terms that articulated my viewpoint by comparing it to bands, and how I might just say my favorite band of all time would be The Velvet Underground, the second favorite would be The Rolling Stones, but their influence is equal, their importance is equal. It really just comes down to your world view and what things you respond to on a personal level, but you can still acknowledge both of them as being equally great. And there are times when you want one, there are times when you want the other.
AS: Between us, I think Matt and I have written one or two, it not three doctoral theses on The Sopranos, and yet here we are—we’re both arguing for two of the other shows—
MZS: —yeah, yeah—
AS: —but it doesn’t make me love The Sopranos any less.
MZS: No, certainly not. Certainly not. Well, I think that ought to do it.
MZS: Thanks, everybody.
AJ: Thank you, and hopefully all of this will be understandable.