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Television's Unrewarding Consensus on 'The Wire'

0920talkbackandrew238c7_2 To little surprise, The Sopranos received a handful of Emmys on Sept. 16 as it took its final bow. Over the past decade, the HBO drama has transcended the relatively narrow confines of pay cable to redefine television's possibilities and help lead a medium's renaissance. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker and a journalist who has covered everything from professional basketball to the Soviet Union, has called The Sopranos "the richest achievement in the history of television."

What escaped notice last Sunday was that The Wire, HBO's other universally praised crime drama, received no Emmy recognition at all, not even a nomination. This snub is quite possibly unintentional, but it is getting to be pro forma. In four seasons, the show has contended for a trophy exactly once, in a writing category in 2005. (It didn't win.) And the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is hardly alone: The guilds for actors, writers, directors, and producers have never nominated the series for any awards.

A show about crime the way a Faulkner novel is about Mississippi, The Wire has depicted the interplay among police, drug dealers, politicians, school kids, and dock workers, chronicling a nation's underclass with a level of complexity rarely seen in fictive television. Set in Baltimore, the show has a cast of some 70 characters -- 75 percent of whom are African-American. One can't help but wonder if there's a direct connection between the show's racial makeup and Hollywood's screaming indifference toward it.

Though things have improved over the past decade, the television industry's record on racial issues remains spotty. The Writers Guild of America released a report this year stating that minorities make up less than 10 percent of television writing staffs (and get paid significantly less), even though nonwhites compose about 30 percent of the U.S. population. A UCLA study in 2006 noted that casting notices for television and film were disproportionately tilted in favor of whites. And of the 29 new shows set to debut this TV season, only five feature performers of color in central roles, according to a June report in the Los Angeles Times.

For those thousands of actors, writers, and directors who struggle to get work on one episode of one television show, a scarcity of Emmy recognition would seem to be a high-class problem. But this isn't Susan Lucci needing 19 tries to earn a Daytime Emmy, and it isn't a well-regarded show such as Freaks and Geeks getting canceled. This is a program of vast artistic achievement whose testifiers measure their praise in grand terms and historic dimensions.

Noel Holston has critiqued and covered television for three decades, for the Orlando Sentinel, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and New York's Newsday. "The Wire is the best series, the best program in the history of television," he told me last week. "If you could cross whatever you think is the best drama with Edward R. Murrow's See It Now, this is what it would look like."

Holston is hardly alone. The Washington Post's Tom Shales wrote last year, "The Wire might be the most authentic epic ever on television." The New York Times' Virginia Heffernan has described the show as "literary television that broadens the mind and blows the heart open." The Sopranos may very well be a historic achievement, but -- with all due respect to Remnick -- its aspirations reached no higher than those of Mario Puzo. The Wire's ambitions match those of Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens.

Taste and ratings -- not to mention awards -- cannot be commanded by critical opinion. But there is a pattern to the way The Wire is passed over year after year when it comes time for awards, and it reflects a consensus from every quarter of the television industry: actors, writers, directors, and producers. In the end, trophies and baubles don't matter all that much, and we who are awed by the show should take no small amount of satisfaction from the fact it made it onto the air. But entertainment decision makers like to copy successes; with a scarcity of industry affirmation and acclaim, The Wire -- in the people it portrays, the subjects it addresses, and the perspectives it reveals -- looks as if it will remain a singular achievement. That would be a shame.

-- Andrew Salomon

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