Late last year, “The Wire” in HD premiered on HBO Go and on Jan. 5, it was made available to digitally purchase, and this week it arrives on Blu-ray. It’s a remastered version of the show that’ll look better than those DVDs you’ve watched a hundred times, though it will also look slightly different: The show has been changed to fit to a more widescreen-friendly aspect ratio. Last December, when this news was announced, David Simon posted a blog on his website, “The Wire in HD,” that explains why he is, ostensibly, OK with this adjustment to his masterpiece—not that he had much of a say in the matter.
Simon is a reasonable but firm kind of fellow and updated his blog post with clips of the show as it previously looked in its proper 4:3 and how it now looks, cleaned up and remastered but also changed to fit 16:9. He even presented an example where he thinks the change assists the look of the show and one where changes lead to a scene "los[ing] some of [its] purpose and power." Simon calls it an "arguable trade-off, but one that reveals the cost of taking something made in one construct and recasting it for another format."
But this is an unnecessary "trade-off." The very reason the widescreen TVs exist is to afford viewers options; a way to adjust their TVs to different aspect ratios (because movies and now television shows are shot in a number of slightly different aspect ratios) and this is only happening right now because this way people can watch "The Wire" without those pesky black bars on the sides of the image. That's what this is all about. Black bars on the sides of the image when you watch it.
Simon was typically transparent about the process: "This new version, after all, exists in an aspect ratio that simply wasn't intended or serviced by the filmmakers when the camera was rolling and the shot was framed." Calling this a "new version" veers on spin, but the bottom line is that Simon really has no control over how HBO changes his show and if you read the blog post, it's clear that Simon and other key collaborators on "The Wire" stepped in once they saw how HBO was adjusting the show and oversaw these adjustments. They found a compromise and Simon makes that clear. Read between the lines though, and Simon is basically saying, "HBO could've fucked this up way more."
If you compare and contrast the examples Simon provides, the differences are subtle but significant. The framing is slightly off now giving the HD-altered version a kind of heightened, cinematic quality that, when it was on, it intentionally rejected. For example, one scene that Simon posted on his blog, between Wee-Bey Brice and D'Angelo Barksdale in front of New York Fried Chicken, now has a "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"-style grandiosity to it in 16:9. The characters are dwarfed by their surroundings. But what was so powerful about "The Wire" is how it gave all of its characters a kind of shabby, realistic nobility and never elevated their actions to some sort of pomp-and-circumstance-filled street opera (think of how "unimpressive," in a dramatic sense, Omar Little's murder was). The original version of the scene between Wee-Bey and D'Angelo is a bit tighter, and as a result, it's like you're observing these characters from across the street. It feels more like a regular-ass chat between two guys; the dialogue and acting tells you it's important, not the framing of the camera.
If you recall, the entire aspect-ratio conversation came about decades ago because earlier technology frequently cropped all images to fit television. Movies were given the "pan and scan" treatment, which means the sides of the image were haphazardly cropped to so that a movie could fit the square shape of a television. The widescreen television and monitor were a way to fix this cropping problem and allow for a multitude of aspect ratios. But now widescreen, a format developed to maintain the integrity of a movie, is the reason for changing the show. The mind boggles.