‘The Simpsons,’ ‘The Wire,’ and Why You Should Care About Cropped TV Shows

“I hold this truth to be self-evident, that all movies deserve to be seen in their original aspect ratios,” Roger Ebert wrote in 2001, describing a Chicago outdoor film series where classic movies were being “cropped” to create a widescreen presentation — leading, he fumed, to a screening of An American in Paris where “the projector was cutting off, among other things, Gene Kelly’s feet” and a Top Hat presentation “cutting off of the even more sublime feet of Astaire and Rogers.” That series was presented by HBO, who elected to screen the films in widescreen “so that people will not think we’re showing television.” That was 13 years ago, before HDTV put a wide screen in everyone’s living room, and now even television itself isn’t safe. Hard on the heels of FXX’s Simpsons marathon, which cropped all of the show’s pre-2009 episodes, HBO has announced a “remastering” of The Wire, and rumor has it that show will be cropped to widescreen as well. We’re seeing a trend here. And it’s a genuinely worrisome one.

The quick background part: most movies made before 1953 or so were shot in the standard “Academy” ratio of 1.37:1 — basically a square. Then widescreen became the standard (partially to combat the competition of television), in wider ratios that made the image less of a square and more of a rectangle. But then that became a problem when those rectangular movies were shown on square televisions — which prompted the practice of “pan and scanning,” or pulling a square out of the rectangle to fit the screen. And that was the standard until widescreen HDTVs took over; suddenly, consumers preferred their movies in widescreen, to fill the frame. Luckily, most of the recent movies were shot to do just that.

But now we’re seeing a reverse problem with older television shows, which were also shot in a square-ish frame and are now expected to fill a rectangle. So the tops and bottoms are cut off the square, with no concern for the original compositions — or, in the case of The Simpsons, the original jokes.

Cropped image from "The Simpsons"

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.

Michael K. Williams in "The Wire"

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