To be sure, there is a certain percentage of the population — given a voice, unsurprisingly enough, over at Slate — that believes we should just lighten up since, after all, it’s just a TV show. Responding to TV and film critic Matt Zoller Seitz’s contention that “altering a film or show’s compositions for any reason, at any time, is vandalism,” Slate’s Chris Wade sneers,
If The Simpsons was Lawrence of Arabia, I might agree. But The Simpsons is now and has always been a TV show, its content intimately linked with its method of production, with jokes and stories negotiated at all points between the creators and networks, with the understanding that the show would be continually cut and altered to fit demands in syndication. And, though some may dismiss the desires of the masses, studies have found that the vast majority of viewers prefer widescreen content.
Yes, viewers don’t like to see empty space on their expensive televisions. But this is the same flawed logic that led to “pan and scan” VHS, so maybe “the desires of the masses” are worth dismissing.
More troublesome is this idea that television craftsmanship isn’t worth preserving if the media in question isn’t some kind of esteemed masterpiece, a bit of nasty cultural elitism that is a little shocking here in the Silver Age of Television, and which makes Wade sound about as clueless and obnoxious as those outmoded “I don’t even own a television” assholes. Because The Simpsons IS the Lawrence of Arabia of television comedy — and its dismissal, as “just” a cartoon or “just” a sitcom or whatever slight you’d care to plug in is exactly the kind of snobbery that led us to lose 75 percent of all silent films. They were just movies, you guys. Just throwaway entertainment, nothing to get worked up about.
Now obviously, The Simpsons isn’t going away. But it’s a work of art, and works of art should be properly preserved and exhibited. And this leads us to The Wire, which is roughly the television equivalent of Lawrence of Arabia, a five-season knockout that countless television aficionados (this one included) consider the very finest program the medium has ever given us. The news that HBO is remastering the program in high-def is good. The rumor that said HD upgrade would mean cropping the show from its original 4:3 aspect ratio is very troubling. HBO hasn’t announced it officially, but a reader tells Kottke.org that the cropping is happening.
If that rumor is true, it’s problematic for two reasons. First of all, the show was originally shot in widescreen and cropped down to 4×3 — meaning that if HBO were really dead set on a widescreen image, they could go back to the original masters (which they’re presumably doing if they’re remastering anyway, right?) and save us the upsetting sight of Stringer Bell without hair or Lester Freamon without a neck. This “true widescreen” format is reportedly how the show initially aired on Amazon Prime a couple of years ago, before those versions were pulled and replaced with the original 4×3 presentation.
And why did that happen? Because that’s how the show is meant to be seen. The Wire stayed with the standard aspect ratio even after other HBO hour-longs went wide — and it was a conscious decision. Director of photography Dave Insley explained at the time (via Kottke):
The reason the show has stayed 4×3 is because David Simon thinks that 4×3 feels more like real life and real television and not like a movie…When the show started 2001 / 2002 they framed it for 16 x 9 as a way of future-proofing. Then a couple of seasons ago, right before Season 4 began shooting, there was a big discussion about it and after much discussion—David, Nina, Joe Chappelle, the producers, the DPs—and we discussed what should be the style of the show. David made the decision that we would stay with 4×3.
“David made the decision that we would stay with 4×3.” That should be the last word on the matter, period, full stop. It’s worth noting that the Wire cropping rumor is, at this point, just that — a rumor. But the considerable ratings success of FXX’s cropped Simpsons marathon makes it a credible one, and thus worth raising objections to now, before it’s (maybe/hopefully?) too late. “When all TV is in the 16:9 format, will classic 1.33:1 be cropped at the top and bottom to fill the screen?” Ebert asked in 2001. “Since there’s less real estate to work with, this would be an even greater barbarism than the current forms of widescreen cropping. Humphrey Bogart’s hairpieces and Kirk Douglas’ dimple would disappear from cinematic memory.” Add in Homer Simpson’s hair wisp and Jimmy McNulty’s five o’clock shadow, and you’ve got some idea of what we’re dealing with here.
Header image via Sam Adams