There is nothing better than March Madness. But like all great things, March Madness gets exploited in the name of some stupid shit. And the ubiquity of various pop culture brackets every March is one of the most annoying trends.
This year’s bracket du jour is Grandland’s “tournament” of characters from The Wire. On paper, I should love this, as it combines two of my favorite things: March Madness and The Wire. And while I’m always in favor of conversations about the greatest television show of all-time, I was only mildly pleased by Grandland’s bracket—and not just because of the huge flaws made by the committee.
My problem with this bracket, like my problem with all pop culture brackets, is that it misrepresents what is so great about the NCAA Tournament. Using the brackets to determine who is the best Wire character (or the best musician from New York City, or the best TV show) implies that the NCAA Tournament is great because it is a good system for determining the best team. This is obviously untrue.
There are two great things about the Tournament*: its unpredictability and its excitement. It’s unpredictable because there are over nine quintillion ways it could play out (and that’s not even factoring in the First Four!), and it’s exciting because it’s all happening at once. There is no other playoff system as big as March Madness, and none that includes dozens of do-or-die games over same weekend.
*Well, it’s more like millions, but for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to focus on two.
But pop culture brackets negate these two things. Unless you happen to find online voting particularly exciting, there is none of the excitement that surrounds actual basketball games in these brackets. In some cases, the same publication that sets the brackets actually picks the winners, meaning that the only suspense at all comes from the artificial lag time between the announcements. There are also no stakes—if Omar doesn’t win Grantland’s Tournament, is that really going to change anyone’s opinion of the show?
And while these brackets might initially seem unpredictable, that element too quickly vanishes upon inspection. The reason why the NCAA Tournament is so unpredictable is that the criteria used to seed teams (performance during the season) is different from the criteria that determines who advances (head-to-head games). In other words, no matter how great the disparity is using the first criteria, there is always the possibility of an upset. In pop culture brackets, though, the seeding and the results are based on the same thing: the overall quality of a show, character, musician, etc.
This means that upsets are essentially nonexistent. Just look at how Grantland’s bracket has shaken out: With one exception, the only “upsets” have been two fives over fours, and one three over a two. In the NCAA Tournament, these would barely be considered upsets. The one notable exception—7-seed Bubbles beating 2-seed Clay Davis—illustrates why even these “upsets” are suspect: All they really reflect is poor seeding. There’s no reasonable justification for Clay Davis—a great character in individual scenes, but one who never had a real arc—being seeded five spots ahead of Bubbles, one of The Wire’s truly redemptive characters. The committee made a mistake and the voters fixed it. Even the less noteworthy upsets have this quality as well: Wee-Bey ranked ahead of Lester? Marlo ahead of Bodie? Chris ahead of Cutty? All dubious rankings…
It’s comforting that voters rectified these injustices, which does indicate that pop culture brackets are at least good at the one thing March Madness is bad at: Picking a champion who most people find legitimately impressive. Whichever character wins Grantland’s tournament, whether or not he happens to be your favorite character, will be a character with broad support. This is different from March Madness, which usually produces unforgettable tournaments but sometimes ends up with forgettable champions (’11, ’10, ’06, ’02).
Is this a point in favor of pop culture brackets? Not really. The same result could be achieved far more easily and accurately with a simple poll. A poll isn’t subject to the arbitrary match ups conceived by the committee, or the staggered voting schedule that comes with brackets. Even better, a poll does more than just determine a winner—it determines who comes in second, and third, and fourth, etc. Brackets don’t do this. A character eliminated in the first round by the eventual winner could conceivably be the second-most popular character on the show, but brackets have no way of depicting this.
In other words, pop culture brackets are stupid stunts only good for generating web traffic. If you really want to rank something, just do what NPI does: Rank!