Josh Wolk compares them to two versions of ''Band of Brothers'' and says they shouldn't go wide
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Credit: West Wing: NBC

Should ”ER” and ”West Wing” air in widescreen?

I was watching ”Band of Brothers” on HBO in widescreen (otherwise known as letterbox format), and decided to flip over to its full-screen simulcast on HBO Plus to see just what the uncultured barbarians who chose that format were missing. I kept switching: back, forth, back, forth, studying the parallel images for distinguishing details. In one scene taking place in a church, I kept counting the candles on the left and right sides, seeing if any were cropped. Nope. Nothing was missing but the top of Donnie Wahlberg’s head. Perhaps some of the battlefield vistas are cropped, but for the most part, the only benefit I could see to watching widescreen was it made me feel all classy inside.

Which, apparently, is all some TV producers are hoping for when they go widescreen. The two non-HBO shows now being shown letterboxed are ”ER” and ”The West Wing,” both executive produced by John Wells. When asked last July why ”ER” switched, Wells said, ”We noticed that a large number of commercials were being broadcast in letterbox form. We called the advertising department and asked why… and they said, ‘Well, because it looks classier.’ Well, we’ve got a classy project. And I think that, increasingly, you want to be able to distinguish your show in an ever more cluttered marketplace as something that stands out.”

It makes sense, I guess, in an extraordinarily superficial kind of way. Widescreen became synonymous with ”classy” after film-savvy networks like IFC began showing movies this way to display them as they were intended, rather than in the pan-and-scan versions usually shown on pay TV, rented videos, and network airings. It made sense because you often lost valuable visual info on the sides of the frame when it was stuffed into the squarish TV box. Therefore, it was ”classy” only because it preserved the filmmaker’s original vision, who composed each shot with the big screen in mind. If you’re filming expressly for the small screen, however, why not compose your shots accordingly?

Even many filmmakers recognize that more people will eventually see their movies on the small screen on video, cable, or TV; that’s why they often compose their shots with both screen sizes in mind. James Cameron, for example, was able to make a version of ”Titanic” full-screen for video that didn’t lose anything because he kept that format in mind while shooting.

Yet widescreen can be effective for some TV shows. It works for ”The Sopranos,” which is far more cinematic than most movies. (You could hack off two-thirds of the ”Corky Romano” screen and you wouldn’t lose anything.) But it’s a rare TV show that truly needs that sprawling horizon. Would ”ER” and ”West Wing” lose anything by going full-screen? Probably not, especially in ”West Wing”’s case. Much of that show’s adrenaline comes from its claustrophobia; people strutting through crowded hallways and huddling in close conferences, which suits a tight, square scene better.

My biggest fear is that the widescreen format will become a kneejerk shorthand for ”elegant,” and soon other, lesser shows will think all it takes is a shrunk screen to deserve that adjective. If other series start following suit — which I predict they will — this ”widescreen” tout will have as much effect on viewers as promos bragging of a ”very special episode” do now. There’s no dressing up some shows. Put ”Family Law” in widescreen — hell, put the cast in formalwear and make them speak in British accents — it’s still the same crap.

Am I being too alarmist when I warn of a Brave New World when the WB’s ”Nikki” is in widescreen? Consider this: During each episode of Fox’s ”Love Cruise,” the opening credits and recap of past shows were shown in widescreen. ”Class” and ”ass” may share three letters, but there’s a lot bigger difference than a couple of black lines can mask.

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