Twenty years from now I truly think people will look back on the 2000s as a golden era of television. Not only have we witnessed the rise of reality shows as a force of nature (real people in ridiculous situations — what’s not to like???), but this is also a time when some truly groundbreaking dramatic shows of unparalleled depth and complexity hit the airwaves — The Sopranos (actually debuted in ’99, but still), Six Feet Under, Lost, Big Love, Deadwood, many many others, and, in my opinion the absolute pinnacle of the form and the best television series I have ever seen: The Wire.
What does this have to do with books? Well, I think there are two reasons for this golden era that also happen to be very relevant to writing.
The first cornerstone of this golden era is that after appealing to the lowest common denominator for forty years and more or less following H.L. Mencken’s maxim that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public, TV show creators did something extremely crucial: they started trusting their viewers.
I was too young to watch the classic TV series Dallas the first time around, but my fiancee and I recently rented the DVDs, and it was seriously amazing to watch. Not only because of the hilariously dated aspects, such as a reference to the exoticness of an avocado, but to our modern eyes everything was revealed extreeeeemly slooowly. Nothing happened that wasn’t explained in depth. There wasn’t a whole lot of complexity to the plots, either — JR was evil, Bobby was good, Sue Ellen was drunk. Piece of cake.
Compare that to The Wire, with multiple intersecting plots, dozens and dozens of characters, little to no exposition to explain who is who and which side each person is on. Throw in some intense slang and you have one big recipe for confusion.
But it all comes together in an incredible fashion. There have been times when I was lost and confused, but eventually it all makes sense and it’s just such an unparalleled, comprehensive look at an entire city, the different elements and currents that make up our society, and the intractable nature of our worst problems.
All of this is possible because the creators of the show trust that their viewers are intelligent enough to figure it all out.
The second cornerstone is that in order to have a complex show it has to be populated with similarly complex characters, and our golden era has given us some of the most memorable and richly rendered characters in television history.
Going back to Dallas, JR is extremely memorable and one of the greatest characters ever — no one has made being evil look more fun. But complex? Not really.
Compare JR to the extremely complex characters on the Wire, such as Omar, a fearsome gay outlaw who makes living stealing from drug dealers and lives by his own strict moral code. Omar is a nuanced character with his own language, habits, weaknesses, abilities and a decidedly unique sense of morality… he’s by society’s standards a horrible person who has killed dozens of people, and yet he’s so likable and fascinating.
Even the minor characters on The Wire are richly rendered through seemingly minor details that reveal a huge amount about the characters in a short time. Wee-Bey is an assassin who loves to collect fish. Snoop dresses and speaks like a man, but is actually a fearsome female gangbanger. Every single character in the show has small habits and touches that make them unique. There are over 50 major and minor characters on The Wire, and yet I can look at the list of the cast on the IMDB page and I’d be able to tell you in depth who every single one is. That’s because all of those small touches make them memorable.
So if you haven’t seen The Wire definitely, definitely check it out, it’s incredible, it’s fantastically written, and it may just help your own writing.